Know Your Brain: How Trauma Affects Memory

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Photo: Ninian Reid via CC BY 2.0

Why are we just hearing about this now? The question is all too familiar when it comes to dealing with sexual misconduct. Those who say it still think it’s an important point, that those who suffered should have come forward when the abuse happened — as if there is a right time for accusations like the ones made publicly by Christine Blasey Ford or Anita Hill to be addressed, and that its victims shouldn’t just remember it years later.

There are a number of reasons as to why someone who suffers a sexual assault may choose to remain silent, many of them having to do with how most countries handle these accusations in the first place — but the other problem with this question is that it brings into question the credibility of the accuser.

As Ms. Ford’s testimony took place 36 years after the fact, her detractors accused her of trying to assassinate Judge Kavanaugh’s character — based on her own faulty memory or being politically motivated by testifying on live national television.

Pundits argued that human memory is unreliable, which to a large extent is true — and therefore unknowable if events happened far enough in the past, since each time we recall memories, we tend to reconstruct particular episodes in the past. It is, however, a significant oversimplification of how the brain processes events in our life history.

We may not always remember details of our more benign memories like dates and times, but rather memories form in a nonlinear way. A particular image from that memory may cause us to think of another episode that occurred earlier or later in our lives, and sometimes two memories become very closely linked. In traumatic episodes, like the one recalled by Ford, the survivor often remembers very clear visuals of the assault — details like the attacker’s face and words he may have said, even the tone — are all things that can cause them to have flashbacks and relive their trauma.

All too often, when trying to give the accused the benefit of the doubt, it can look like their accusers have a story that’s doubtful because of its inconsistencies. Because there are large gaps in their story, that they may not even be able to remember the day on which the incident occurred, they’re not telling the full truth. This is why unlike Ford, many victims choose not to come forward at all.

According to Jim Hopper, a trauma expert who works with police and prosecutors across the country: “If there was more effort from the media and from Hollywood to educate people on how memories actually work, and what we should expect people to remember — how they push these memories away but they eventually can come back — it would be much harder for people to get away with [sexual assault].

“Of course we always want as much evidence as we can. I’m not saying you simply believe someone — or you simply lock somebody else up because someone says this happened, but it also is not okay to dismiss them or say that their testimony is useless or worthless because there are so many gaps in it.”

Ford tearfully recalled fearing for her life in the testimony. Fearing that death is a possibility creates an urgency that drives the brain into survival mode. The amygdala kicks in and takes over the brain’s processes — relaying the urgency to the hippocampus, a region that plays a role in both how we store memories and how we piece them together. Every assault is different, and so is every survivor — so the most prominent memories differ from person to person, but still do considerable damage.

Often, the survivor can remember the attacker’s face or hands on their throat, but sometimes they may passively look directly ahead — facing the window or the door once they realize they cannot escape. These make for indelible memories — even if the circumstances leading up to it are not always necessarily clear. It’s also why false accusations are extremely rare — even a true story doesn’t always stand up to much scrutiny, let alone a fabricated one.

The problem has become unfortunately all too common in everyday life — evidence that it’s one of the easiest violent crimes for a perpetrator to get away with — as they can blame accusations against them on the selective memory of the victim.

Fortunately, through social media and movements like #MeToo, many of these accusations are being taken seriously for the first time in recent history, and with the victims being believed, hopefully we will also take seriously the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder that often inevitably follows.

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