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Kavanaugh Accusations: How Does the Brain Process Sexual Assault?

We talked to a clinical psychologist to find out how survivors remember their assaults — and their memories are anything but straightforward

Brett Kavanaugh

Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault by two women. He denies the allegations.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Sunday, The New Yorker reported that a second woman has come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Deborah Ramirez, Kavanaugh’s classmate at Yale, joins his high school acquaintance, Christine Blasey Ford, in publicly accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct and demanding an investigation by the FBI before Congress proceeds with a vote. Kavanaugh has denied all the allegations.

While both women have received support from Democrats, sexual assault survivors and advocates, Ford has been put through the ringer by the GOP and Kavanaugh’s defenders, and Ramirez will likely experience the same treatment. The attacks on the credibility of their accounts — which include both visceral details and memory gaps — have, in part, been based on a misunderstanding of how the brain records and processes traumatic memories.

“Human memory is notoriously unreliable, especially over time,” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson said on his program. “Past a certain point, the past is unknowable.”

This is incredibly simplistic. What neuroscience does show is that how the brain processes trauma impacts how and what victims recall about the precipitating incident. These memories often surface in a non-linear manner and may not contain the kind of factual details — the who, what, where, when and why — demanded by law enforcement, medical personnel and Fox News pundits.

“It’s based on ignorance,” Jim Hopper,a clinical psychologist and expert on psychological trauma who trains police and prosecutors around the country, tells Rolling Stone. “If there was more effort from the media and from Hollywood to educate people on how memories actually work, and what we should expect people to remember — how they push these memories away but they eventually can come back — it would be much harder for people to get away with [sexual assault]. Of course we always want as much evidence as we can. I’m not saying you simply believe someone … or you simply lock somebody else up because someone says this happened, but it also is not okay to dismiss them or say that their testimony is useless or worthless because there are so many gaps in it.”

In her original letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, Ford wrote that the night Kavanaugh allegedly attempted to rape her, “I feared he may inadvertently kill me.”

This intense fear, which accompanies a traumatic event like sexual assault, sends the brain into survival mode. The brain’s defense circuitry, which includes the amygdala, gets activated, rapidly dominates brain functioning, and hits the hippocampus, which plays central roles in memory encoding and storage, with stress hormones that dramatically alter its functioning in ways selected by evolution to promote survival.

Those brain changes enhance the encoding and storage of aspects of the experience that capture attention and are particularly disturbing, known as the central details, while at the same time impairing the encoding of peripheral details which got little attention and had little or no emotional significance. The same stress hormones can also impair the encoding and storage of more complex information, like the order in which those central and peripheral details occurred.

“Whenever we’re having an experience, some aspects are getting our attention and some aren’t, and some are not only getting our attention, but have emotional significance attached to them,” Hopper tells Rolling Stone. “The central details are those things which you’re paying attention to and are emotionally significant to you. Every sexual assault is different, so for one person, the central details of the sexual assault might be the hand over the mouth, the hands around the throat, the feeling of being penetrated in some way. For someone else, the main central details might be the sounds of the traffic on the street below and the pattern on the sofa across the room.”

In her account to The New Yorker, Ramirez admitted that there are “significant gaps in her memories of the evening” that “Kavanaugh … exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away.” While the fact that Ramirez had been drinking alcohol that night is a contributing factor in her memory gaps, and she was her initially reluctant “to characterize Kavanaugh’s role in the alleged incident with certainty,” after six days “carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney,” Ramirez “felt confident enough of her recollections” to come forward and publicly accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.

The clearest central detail, at least in the account given to the New Yorker, is her memory of Kavanaugh pulling up his pants in the seconds after he allegedly shoved his bare penis in her face and she swatted it away.

“Brett was laughing,” Ramirez said. “I can still see his face, and his hips coming forward, like when you pull up your pants.” And then in a subsequent interview a few days later, she recalled again, “I’m confident about the pants coming up, and I’m confident about Brett being there.” 

In these traumatic situations, Hopper says, the differential storage of central and peripheral details is greatly accentuated. Not only are peripheral details not being recorded and stored to the same degree, but they also fade fast, making it difficult for victims to put together the pieces of the memory in a linear form

“It’s well-established in the neuroscience of memory research that stress impairs retrieval,” Hopper explains. “Stress can burn this stuff in so it’s ‘unforgettable,’ and will give a person nightmares for the rest of their life, but when they’re stressed out they may not be able to retrieve details that are strongly stored in their brain, let alone remember what order these details happened in, or [deleted] retrieve the peripheral details to fill in the memory gaps.”

These gaps or inconsistencies in the peripheral details of a traumatic memory are often used to dismiss victims and discredit their accounts, despite being completely consistent with how the brain processes trauma. These hazy or missing peripheral details are not a reflection of the victim’s credibility or their account as whole.

“This is what makes sexual assault the easiest violent crime to get away with,” says Hopper. “Because the crime itself creates memories that then the perpetrator and their protectors can use to discredit the victim.”

In This Article: sexual assault, Supreme Court

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