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Ford Argued Trauma Improves Memory, But That’s Not What The Science Says

Yes, a traumatic experience is one you are more likely to remember. But it is also one your mind is more likely to distort.


In the Senate hearing about her sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford argued that the trauma of the alleged assault helped her remember the event with certainty. Scientifically, however this may not be the case.

During her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford claimed she was 100 percent certain that it had been Kavanaugh who assaulted her. When asked how she could be so sure after 36 years, she explained, as a psychologist, that trauma can help keep memories vivid and clear. Medically speaking, however, this is only half the answer.

Yes, a traumatic experience is one you are more likely to remember. But it is also one your mind is more likely to distort. Both observational and experimental studies have found that following a traumatic experience, the brain is more likely to commit a “source monitoring error,” i.e. to mix information from different sources.

For instance, if Ford had seen Kavanaugh on the news, and this reminded her of high school and thus her assault, her brain could have convinced her that Kavanaugh had been her assailant. In other words, it would have confused the “source” of Kavanaugh’s image, believing that it remembered him from the party when it actually remembered him from elsewhere. Such confusion is especially common among those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Remember that although Ford had spoken about the assault with her therapist for 12 years, she had never mentioned Kavanaugh’s name, at least according to the evidence available.

None of this is to say that Ford is definitely mistaken in her accusation. Rather, I am specifically disputing the claim that the psychological arousal caused by such an event guarantees that her memory of the event is accurate. On the contrary, the trauma following the experience may actually impede her memory. The stress of having to fly out to Washington and testify before the committee could have further distorted her recollection.

Such a proposition is not an affront to Ford‘s character. If her recollection were my own, I would likely undertake the same actions. However, I would also understand why others might doubt my recollections and the political motivations of many of my backers.

The appointment of a justice to the most powerful court in the land cannot be taken lightly. The decision, yea or nay, should not be made based on half-truths. A polygraph, which Ford took to bolster her claim, is not scientifically accurate. Neither is her claim that trauma improved her memory.

I hope that before the Senate Judiciary Committee comes to its decision, it consults an impartial psychological expert and other witnesses and accusers. The basis of our entire legal system rests on the ideal of “innocent until proven guilty.”

This appointment is simply too great of a decision to be based upon one individual’s memory, even if that individual is a psychologist and a victim of a brutal assault. Allowing feelings to reign over facts, and half-truths over science, could set a dangerous precedent for generations. That would be a catastrophe nobody could ever claim to forget.