Merely thinking about traumatic memories can be stressful, with a whole host of bodily responses accompanying the memory, from a faster heart rate to increased sweating and so forth. These reactions are often interpreted by people as some kind of indicator of the truthfulness of the memory. But a new study on alien abduction “survivors” by the fine folks at Harvard seems to indicate that a bodily response to any kind of account—be it a contrived memory or a genuine one—depends only on whether or not the account is traumatic, not whether or not it’s truthful. (Psychological Science / EurkeAlert: “Probing the world of alien abduction stories” [June 21, 2004])
That caught my attention as yet another piece of evidence that so-called recovered memories are not what they may appear to be on the surface. We assume a memory is truthful if it's vivid, detailed, accompanied by emotional intensity (including changes in physiological arousal), and the individual has a high degree of confidence in the accuracy of the recovered traumatic memory. Thing is, such memories can be as fallible as any other kind of memory, and the factors mentioned above have no bearing on the memory's accuracy. In fact, some of the conditions in which traumatic memories are recovered themselves can invite inaccuracies, because they make the person more impressionable, more vulnerable to manipulation. My guess is that many of the recovered alien abduction memories have their origins in hypnosis or guided imagery sessions, or due to a drug-induced or possible psychotic hallucination.
A quick aside: Psychological Science is an excellent general psychology journal, and well worth a look if you want to get an idea of the state of the art in psychological research. The organization behind this journal, American Psychological Society, is an advocate for those of us in the psychological sciences who make our living as researchers and/or instructors. In particular APS has been valuable in lobbying for extra federal research grant funds as well as a vocal opponent of Bu$hCo's cultural war against the sciences.