Sexual trauma and memory — we remember pieces as opposed to complete storylines

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At a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, psychologist Christine Blasey Ford described her alleged sexual assault 36 years ago by Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Some skeptics wondered why she hadn’t come forward years earlier. Other doubters called her “mixed up” and questioned the veracity of her memories.

But some of us were very impressed by Dr. Ford, a research psychologist at Stanford University of Medicine and a psychology professor at Palo Alto University. Dr. Ford’s ability to speak about her memory — not just in terms of recollection, but in terms of the actual mechanisms that make memory function within our brains — was inspiring.

{mosads}As a trauma psychologist, let me add a little more context and a few more nuances to the trauma and memory debate. Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with a range of survivors including those who directly experienced the 9/11 terror attack on the former World Trade Center, combat veterans and former prisoners of war, as well as men and women who have experienced physical and sexual assault at some point in their life.

I have witnessed how the thick emotional pain of trauma can coat hearts and the worst traumatic moments play on in a negative feedback loop across all waking and night hours. These trauma survivors often feel that life and their own sense of self will never return to better days.

Their trauma has taken hold of every aspect of their functioning and hardened their heart and mind. People have different categories of long — term memory — memories of experiences and events and memories of skills and how to do something. They’re stored in different brain regions and undergo different processes of retrieval. 

Regardless of the source of the memory, stories can change. Typically, so do our memories about horrible or traumatic days. We used to believe that memory was fixed and unchanging. But, that static view of memory for ordinary events, as well as traumatic experiences, is not true. Memory is much more fluid and dynamic than we once thought it to be. Based on scientific studies, we know that memories can change or be altered over time. 

This can happen because of the passage of time, due to life experiences, or in a directed way through some kind of intervention. Traumatic memories are not like digital recordings with complete and perfect replay. These memories, however, do last and  can haunt survivors across their lifespan. Recollections of horrible events cannot only change over time, but are often impacted by one’s base mental state

For example, those who experienced few negative emotions after 9/11 and those whose distress significantly reduced over time, have more benign or non — threatening memories of that fateful day. While those who have chronic, intense emotional distress of that day have a general tendency to hold on to fixed imperiling memories.

Over the years, there have been a lot of controversies about the reliability of one’s memory, particularly recollections of childhood abuse. To be clear, in the case of Dr. Ford, this is not about “memory suggestibility” — nonexistent details of actually witnessed events; or “false memory” — memories of entirely new suggested events that never occurred. According to Christine Blasey Ford, she always remembered the alleged sexual assault, she just chose to tell relatively few people, beyond her husband and her therapist.

A review of research on children’s’ and adult’s memories of traumatic experiences indicates that, in general, we remember pieces as opposed to complete storylines. The accuracy and amount of detail remembered generally increase with age.

Distortions are possible and some forgetting of details can occur over time. We also know that stress and emotional content, both at the time of encoding (input) and the time at retrieval (access) will influence what and how we remember.

How we process emotional trauma is best understood through the recalled content rather than the structure of the narratives over time. Meaning, it’s more important what you say, not how you say it. Those further along in the path to recovery from trauma have greater coherence in the narrative of their trauma and a more reflective and observational stance.

When it comes to healing from incredibly painful events, such as sexual assaults, changing the memory or the meaning of that event is not a bad thing. Although, we certainly don’t want to tell ourselves an untruth, we may want to soften the blow to make the impact of that event less harsh. Those who have been traumatized often feel like their sense of meaning is lost. 

For many, moving forward means not only confronting their trauma, but also working through the themes/meanings that trauma has had in their lives. They integrate their experiences into their life story, without being dominated by the memories of the traumatic event.

 So, it’s very important how we attend to, encode and integrate relevant details of traumatic events into the fabric of our lives. If we can do this in a well — organized interconnected way, we can help the memories to be more tolerable and better process the traumatic event.

As a final note, false claims of sexual assault are extremely rare.

There are many reasons why survivors don’t talk about traumatic events until long after they occur. But once they do, it is my hope, for the benefit of both survivors and society, that we believe them. To trauma survivors everywhere: may you have the fortitude to build coherent, strength based narratives of your traumatic memories today and over time. I wish you healing.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress.

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