... A Potentially Risky Combination in the Courtroom

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Does Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy affect the accuracy of memories? This recurrent issue in recent memory research bears relevance to expert witness work in the courtroom. In this review, we will argue that several crucial aspects of EMDR may be detrimental to memory.

First, research has shown that eye movements undermine the quality and quantity of memory. Specifically, eye movements have been shown to decrease the vividness and emotionality of autobiographical experiences and amplify spontaneous false memory levels.

Second, a sizeable proportion of EMDR practitioners endorse the controversial idea of repressed memories and discuss the topic of repressed memory in therapy.

Third, in the Dutch EMDR protocol, patients are instructed to select the target image by using flawed metaphors of memory (e.g., memory works as a video). Such instructions may create demand characteristics to the effect that people over-interpret imagery during therapy as veridical memories.

Collectively, the corpus of research suggests that several components of EMDR
therapy (i.e., performing eye movements, therapist beliefs, and therapeutic instructions) may undermine the accuracy of memory, which can be risky if patients later on serve as witnesses in legal proceedings.

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Concluding Remarks

To conclude, in this article, we have argued that apart from the influence of eye movements on memory, other aspects of EMDR can be problematic for memory too (...). That is, what we have shown is that EMDR therapists strongly believe in the controversial topic of repressed memory and frequently discuss the topic of repressed memory in therapy.

Furthermore, we have shown that certain EMDR therapeutic instructions incorrectly reflect the scientific status of memory and that such instructions might even lead to certain expectations in recalling a memory very vividly. It goes without saying that en masse, fertile ground exists for EMDR therapy contributing to false accusations of abuse. This situation can even become worse since in general, the role of therapists is not truth-centered.

This problematic contribution is, for example, exemplified by recent data from the Dutch Fictitious Memory Group (Werkgroep Fictieve Herinneringen). This is a group dealing with claims of people stating to have been falsely accused of a crime due to false memories. Shaw and Vredeveldt showed that from 2011-2018, 77% (n = 10) of potential false memory cases included some form of psychological therapy amongst others EMDR.

Of course, EMDR is a highly popular treatment, so part of these data is caused by the fact that many patients undergo EMDR. Nonetheless, these data together with the discussed problematic aspects of EMDR (e.g., eye movements, therapists’ beliefs) create a potentially dangerous situation when after EMDR, patients file a complaint of abuse to the police. In such situations, it is highly relevant to be cognizant of the possibility that the accusation might be false.

So, what should memory experts say when they are asked about victims’ trauma memories (e.g., of childhood abuse) that follow EMDR therapy? Basically, there are two scenarios.

In the first scenario, patients enter EMDR therapy and have already memories of past abuse. Here, EMDR may undermine memory. That is, eye movements can foment spontaneous false memories. Also, eye movements can decrease the vividness and emotionality of autobiographical experiences. Furthermore, and at least in the Dutch protocol, the video instruction can lead people to expect recalling a detailed account. In addition, therapists believing in repressed memories might ask suggestive questions to look for possible other abuse related causes and discuss the possibility of repressed memories.

In the second scenario, patients start EMDR therapy without having any memory of trauma, but do display various mental health problems (e.g., anxiety, depressive feelings). Because EMDR therapists often believe in unconscious repressed memories, patients might becued in that direction and come to think that their symptoms are the result of repressed memories of abuse. This constellation of therapists and patients’ beliefs and actions might fuel false memory formation.

In our expert witness work, we have seen a case in which a swim instructor was suspected of abusing children during swim lessons. After the suspicion began to circulate, parents became worried and started to interview their children. In one instance, a child who denied having had any negative experience with the teacher, was sent to EMDR therapy by her parents nonetheless, for prophylactic purpose.

If a child in this situation is subjected to EMDR, the hot spot memory is by definition an imagination, and subsequent memory work on this imagination falls arguably nothing short of fuel for imagination inflation (see Thomas & Loftus,

Of course, memory experts who work as expert witnesses mostly do not know which scenario is true during a legal case. Sometimes, in legal cases, information is available about whether a patient did or did not have any recollection concerning abuse before undergoing EMDR therapy that might make a certain scenario more plausible than the other.

However, and more importantly, whatever the scenario, the current collection of research suggests that EMDR can negatively affect memory and hence, undermine the accuracy of testimony in legal cases.