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Dr. Christine Blasey Ford Explains How Traumatic Memories Stick

As the nation weighs how credible a memory from 36 years ago is, Ford, a psychologist, explains the neuroscience of traumatic memories during her testimony.

Photo Credit: Pool/ Getty Images 

As the Senate Judiciary Committee continues to hear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony today about the night she alleges Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982, pundits, psychologists and laymen alike are weighing how credible a 36-year-old memory can be. Skeptics crack: “I can’t even remember what I did last week.”

But traumatic memories, studies indicate, are in no way comparable to the forgettable activities you did last week.

When Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Committee, asked Ford, a psychologist, “How are you so sure that it was he?” Ford replied: “The same way that I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now.” Then she proceeded to unpack the science behind memory and trauma: “The level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain that… encodes that neurotransmitter, encodes memories into the hippocampus so the trauma related experience then is kind of locked there.”

A few weeks ago, psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman, M.D., wrote an op-ed in the New York Times elucidating in greater detail the brain science Ford underlined to explain why trauma creates lasting memories. In his piece, he cites a 1994 study that shows how our bodies produce a surge of norepinephrine, a stress hormone related to adrenaline, when we’re under emotional duress that cements memories. One group of participants was given a drug that blocked the effects of norepinephrine, while another was given a placebo. Both were told a dramatic and a neutral story. A week later, those who took the drug that stymies norepinephrine’s effects, didn’t remember the neutral tale, but they did recall the emotionally charged one. “The clear implication of this study,” Friedman wrote, “is that emotion raises norepinephrine, which then strengthens memory.”

When Senator Feinstein asked for further confirmation that this couldn’t possibly be a case of mistaken identity, Ford, who’d told the committee earlier that she feared Kavanaugh was going to accidentally kill her while he mounted her and tore at her clothing, firmly replied: “Absolutely not.”

Now you know why. 

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