Monday, October 1, 2018

The science behind Dr. Blasey Ford's testimony about trauma and memory

The online edition of Time Magazine has a good summary. Here's an excerpt:

'Indelible in the Hippocampus Is the Laughter.' The Science Behind Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony


Christine Blasey Ford drew heavily on her psychology background while giving an emotional testimony about her alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, discussing everything from brain chemistry to risk factors for anxiety.


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Experts say that during trauma, the brain does select for salient details. Research indeed shows that norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter released in response to stress or emotional arousal, allows the brain to zero in on certain things and tune out others, says Charan Ranganath, director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California at Davis. (Ranganath is not involved in the Kavanaugh confirmation process.) “People tend to think of memory as all-or-none — as if you either remember everything, or your entire memory is flawed,” Ranganath says. “Neuromodulators like norepinephrine can change what will and will not be prioritized, so it’s very possible that some aspects of an event can be retained and recalled fairly accurately for long periods of time, while other, less significant details may be lost.”


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You can think of it like turning up the contrast on your TV, Ranganath says. “If the contrast is low, you can see everything, even though some things are brighter than others,” he says. “But if you crank up the contrast, what you’ll find is that some things are super bright, and everything else is kind of hard to see.”


As a result, the brain tends to make “the things that are most salient stand out,” which allows it to store those details clearly, even as others fall out of focus or fade over time.


Ranganath also compares the phenomenon to seeing a movie and later relating the plot to a friend: You’d likely think to tell them about the most dramatic scene, but “not the color of the carpeting or the leather couch” in the room where the scene takes place.


In Ford’s testimony, she said she was positive that Kavanaugh was the person who assaulted her, but said she could not remember details like the exact date of the party or how she got home afterward.


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Continue reading here.


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