Why Sexual Assault Memories Stick

Christine Blasey Ford says she has a vivid memory of an attack that took place when she was 15. That makes sense.

As a psychiatrist I know something about how memory works. Neuroscience research tells us that memories formed under the influence of intense emotion — such as the feelings that accompany a sexual assault — are indelible in the way that memories of a routine day are not.

That’s why it’s credible that Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers, has a vivid recollection of the alleged long-ago event.

.. The reason has to do with the way memories are encoded when a person is experiencing intense emotions. When people are assaulted, for example, they experience a surge of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that is a relative of adrenaline.

.. The role of norepinephrine in the enhancement of memory was demonstrated by a 1994study in which researchers randomly gave subjects either propranolol, a drug that blocks the effect of norepinephrine, or a placebo just before they heard either an emotionally arousing story or a neutral one. Then they tested subjects’ memories of both stories a week later and found that propranolol selectively impaired recall of the emotionally arousing story but not the neutral story. The clear implication of this study is that emotion raises norepinephrine, which then strengthens memory.

That is why you can easily forget where you put your smartphone or what you had for dinner last night or last year. But you will almost never forget who raped you, whether it happened yesterday — or 36 years ago. There’s very little chance that you are, as some senators suggest Dr. Blasey is, “mixed up” or “confused.”

.. It is also important to note that what Dr. Blasey is describing in her report of sexual assault by Judge Kavanaugh is not a so-called recovered memory — one that a person believes he has recalled after having suppressed it for many years. Quite the opposite: It is a traumatic memory that she’s been unable to forget.

.. Some commentators don’t dispute Dr. Blasey’s veracity. Instead, they deem an assault as described by Dr. Blasey as irrelevant to Judge Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve on the Supreme Court because he would have been just 17 years old and drunk at the time. We all know that teenagers are notoriously impulsive and should be forgiven for doing things like that, right?

Wrong. Sexual assault cannot be easily dismissed as youthful indiscretion or the product of alcoholic intoxication. First, alcohol does not create violent sexual impulses so much as it unleashes or magnifies pre-existing ones. And second, a sexual assault in which Brett Kavanaugh put his hand over a girl’s mouth to silence her would be in a far different category from a dumb but not character-revealing prank like shoplifting cigarettes. Teenagers are notorious risk-takers because, in part, the reward circuit of the brain develops long before the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and control. But that doesn’t mean they have no sense of right or wrong or that they are hard-wired to violate the rights of others.

.. Since teenagers change so much, these people say, bad behavior then isn’t necessarily predictive of adult behavior. Sure, but why take the risk for someone who will have so much power? Dr. Blasey’s accusation is credible and deserves a full investigation.

Brain Data Could Read Moods, Potentially Treat Depression

Study uses experimental software to decode variations in mood

Can mood be decoded from brain data?

That feat has long been elusive, in part because of the many brain regions that underpin emotions and the inherent complexity of mood. But a group of researchers reported Monday that experimental software trained on recordings from seven patients with brain implants can decode variations in mood.

Confirmation Bias

We interpret facts to confirm our beliefs

“Persons believing in extrasensory perception (ESP) will keep close track of instances when they were ‘thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!’ Yet they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn’t call and (b) they weren’t thinking about Mom and she did call. They also fail to recognize that if they talk to Mom about every two weeks, their frequency of “thinking about Mom” will increase near the end of the two-week-interval, thereby increasing the frequency of a ‘hit.'”

As Catherine A. Sanderson points out in her book, “Social Psychology,” confirmation bias also helps form and re-confirm stereotypes we have about people.

Nature, Joy, and Human Becoming: Michael McCarthy

It was the way in which, at the age of seven, in a time of great trauma in my family, I personally became attached to nature. And this was a day in August, 1954, when my mother had gone away to hospital because she’d had a mental breakdown, and my brother, who was a year older than me, was completely mortified. He was terribly, terribly upset, and yet, I felt nothing whatsoever, which took me 50 years and a certain amount of psychotherapy to discover why.

And we went to my aunt’s in a nearby suburb of the town where I grew up, which was greener than our house, which had been in the inner city, and there was a garden, two doors away. And over the wall of this garden hung a buddleia bush. And in those days, when wildlife was far more numerous in the U.K., as indeed all around the world, than it is now, on the first morning, as I ran out into the road to play, this bush was just simply covered in butterflies. And it was, very particularly, very colorful ones, the most colorful of all the British butterflies, four of them, in particular — the peacock, the red admiral, the small tortoiseshell, and the — what’s the other one? Vanessa cardui. And I was very taken by them. I was lost in contemplation of them. I thought they were remarkable. And it was a time when I should have had terrible feelings, but I had no feelings, and the feelings for the butterflies filled this hole, as it were. And from that moment on, I began to love the natural world, albeit in fairly strange circumstances.

.. But it all came crashing down in 1982, when I was 35, because my mother died at the age of 68, and I found, then, to my absolute amazement, that I could not mourn her and that, just as I felt nothing when she went away in 1954 when I was seven, now, when she went away forever, I couldn’t feel anything either. And I did not know how to react to this; it was — to have your grief taken away from you is a very, very strange situation.

And I came to understand what had happened, and the fact was that when my mother had gone away when I was seven, I had hated her for that. I had hated her because she hadn’t said farewell to us or anything like that; she’d just gone away and left me, although my psyche did not allow me to admit that, so it turned into indifference. And similarly, when she went away forever, when she died, the same feeling kicked in. I hated her because she had gone away again. I hated my mother because she was dead. And these are the sorts of tangled bits of your psyche that psychotherapy — which has lots of critics, but sometimes can help you actually sort out, and it did in my case. And so I was greatly thrilled to have recovered my feelings for my mother and to have understood what happened in my childhood, which had seemed so confused.

But I had no way of marking that. I didn’t have a way of commemorating this really big thing in my life. We like meaning-making, don’t we; that’s why we have ceremonies. We have ceremonies for christening; most of all, we have ceremonies for marriage, and we have ceremonies for funerals. We don’t let people be buried or cremated, just like that. We want to have some sort of solemnity, some sort of meaning-making. But I did not have one.

.. MS. TIPPETT: You do, of course, realize how — that the metaphor there, the allusion of that love for your mother and where we come from and how we can’t feel our grief at the loss of our insects and our birds and our blossoms, it’s — I don’t know; I hear it now more, having you tell the story, than I did when I read it, even.

MR. MCCARTHY: I hadn’t — I think, instinctively, but I didn’t make the explicit connection. I’ll make it now that you say it.