How Trauma and Time Affect How We Recall Important Life Events

During Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford's testimonies, the reliability of memory will be on trial.

Brett Kavanaugh
Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh appears during a confirmation hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building on Wednesday September 05, 2018 in Washington, DC. The organization Fix The Court owns and recently put a variety of links to resources for survivors of sexual assault on the homepage. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Brett Kavanaugh has denied allegations from Christine Blasey Ford that he tried to rape her when they were teenagers. He has also denied that he has ever committed sexual assault against anyone. Meanwhile, Ford and another accuser, Deborah Ramirez, have talked about their alleged incidents, including both precise detail and gaping holes. So who is telling the truth?

According to The New York Times, the biology of memory, though still being studied, helps explain how such different accounts can come out of a shared experience. Memory is selective and there is always a reconstruction to some extent — details are filled in later or dismissed.

But for a trauma victim or in situations of high arousal, the brain is flooded with hormones that strengthen those things you’re paying attention too. However, it makes other details less accessible. Conversely, experts also suggest that there are scenarios in which someone could have committed an assault and have almost no memory of it. If little significance is attached to an assault, for example, the assailant doesn’t consider it an assault, his brain may only weakly encode details of the encounter.

Cognitive scientists say that using memory changes memory. Every time the mind thinks about the encoded experience, it can add details or subtract others. For a victim, often the only stable elements are emotions and the tunnel-vision details: what she was wearing, the hand over her mouth.

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