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- As Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about an alleged sexual assault in high school by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, we looked at a few ways memories can be shaped by trauma.
- Traumatic memories are not stored in the same way as other memories.
- Research shows us that they’re more intense, persistent, and can be impossible to put into words.
Christine Blasey Ford said she didn’t want to come forward with decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct aimed at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, she felt she had to.
“I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school,” Ford said Thursday during sworn testimony in front of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But science suggests it’s possible that he remembers much less of what happened in the summer of 1982 than Ford.
Putting aside for a moment the specifics of the case at hand and what really happened at one suburban Maryland prep school party, the truth is that any sexual assault can have long-lasting effects on the brain, the body, and memories of an event.
Here’s what we know about how sexual trauma can affect a person’s body and a brain, according to the latest research and experts who work with trauma survivors.
Our memories are imperfect, human devices
Neuroscientists haven’t entirely figured out how our brains work.
It’s impossible to pin down one exact place where a memory lands and lives in our gray matter, because the brain acts more like a network than a filing cabinet. We do know that one area of the brain, called the hippocampus, is involved in keeping track of our memories.
In a state of heightened emotion, such as an attack or an assault, the stress hormones we release can strengthen connections in that area of the brain, even growing extra nerve cell extensions (dendrites) and leading to a chronic state of hyper-vigilance.
The body has a few options when presented with a threat like that: freeze, fly, or fight.
The heart quickens, and we’re breathing swiftly, readying to fight back, run, or hide. Blood may start flowing out to the extremities as we prepare.
Memories of this period of “high emotional intensity” can have a kind of “enhanced encoding,” making them more salient and clear, as researchers wrote in a 2018 paper in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
A deluge of long-term effects
Studies show that survivors of sexual assaults can suffer all kinds of troubling health effects. They have demonstrated higher rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal issues (like irritable bowel syndrome), depression, and chronic pain. Trauma survivors can even be less likely to seek preventive care, because anything from a routine teeth cleaning to a pelvic exam can be a retraumatizing experience of touch.
David Emerson, a yoga teacher at the Trauma Center of the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts, has studied how yoga might be able to help trauma survivors by allowing them to reconnect with their bodies. He said there are essentially two ways that trauma victims conjure up memories. One is explicit – the memories that we have words for and can share with others. The other kind of memory is a more implicit form.
“Implicit memories are things we don’t have words for, but that our bodies know,” Emerson told Business Insider. “Our bodies will react, but we might not have language for what’s happening, we just might shut down, or we might withdraw, we could lash out, whatever the response. There may be no language, but that would be considered a traumatic memory enacted.”
The ways that implicit memory works inside our body are still not fully understood, he said, “but there seems to be a distinction between traumatic memories and non-traumatic memories.”
When we are reminded of a traumatic memory it often triggers some kind of flashback, and a bodily response along with it.
“It’s your whole organism that remembers the experience,” Emerson said.
Often, the first and most persistent memories of a traumatic event come as feelings, tastes, and sounds. That’s what Ford said she remembers most about the night of her alleged attack.
“The details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget,” Ford said in prepared remarks Thursday. “They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me, especially as an adult.”
In her testimony, Ford mentioned the sound of laughter as what she remembered the most from the alleged incident.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford said on Thursday. “The uproarious laughter between the two [boys] and their having fun at my expense.”
That tracks with what we know about the power of a traumatic memory.
“Those kinds of things, they seem to be incredibly persistent – more reliable than narrative memory,” Emerson said.
Trauma is tougher when you feel powerless
Many psychologists and therapists operate under the assumption that the best way to deal with trauma is to talk about it. But often, there’s really no reward for sexual assault survivors who choose to process their trauma out loud. For many, it’s been much better to remain silent, speechless, and keep those memories hidden.
Ahead of the Thursday hearing, 85 year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg spoke up about that very problem.
“Every woman of my vintage has not just one story but many stories,” she told a crowd of law students at Georgetown on Wednesday. “But we thought there was nothing you could do about it – boys will be boys – so just find a way to get out of it.”
In other words, the effects of feeling stuck and incapacitated are much larger than a neuro-biological issue. Trauma isn’t always something that happens in a single person’s nervous system. It can be ingrained in a culture.
“The abuse of power is so rampant and so obvious and so constant,” Emerson said. “In the past, pushing back against that power has been a futile exercise.”
He thinks we’re seeing some of the first signs that that’s no longer the case, as with Ford’s testimony.
“People are feeling the impact of chronic power abuse,” he said. “But for some reason, some people have access to [say] ‘no more. That’s not going to happen anymore.'”