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Christine Blasey Ford: Effect of sexual assault, trauma on brain

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Christine Blasey Ford testimony
Christine
Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee,
September 27, 2018.

Win McNamee/Getty
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  • As
    Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary
    Committee
    about an alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court
    Nominee Brett Kavanaugh in high school, we looked at a few of
    the ways that memories can be shaped by trauma.
  • Traumatic memories are not stored in the same way as
    other things we remember.
  • Research shows us that they’re more intense,
    persistent, and can be impossible to put into
    words. 

Christine
Blasey Ford
said she didn’t really want to come forward with
decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct aimed at Supreme
Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, she felt she had
to. 

“I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell
you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high
school,” Ford said Thursday
during sworn testimony
in front of members of the Senate
Judiciary Committee. 

Kavanaugh, meanwhile, says the accusations of sexual
assault — from
Ford and others
 — are
false
, and nothing more than “smears” intended to derail his
nomination.

But science suggests it’s also possible that he remembers
much less of what really happened in the summer of 1982 than
Ford.

Putting aside for a moment the specifics of the case at
hand, and what really happened at one
suburban Maryland prep school party
, the truth is that any
sexual assault can have long-lasting effects on the brain, the
body, and memories of an event. 

Here’s what we know about how sexual trauma can affect a
person’s body and a brain, according to experts who work with
trauma survivors as well as the latest research.

Our memories are imperfect, human devices

Neuroscientists haven’t entirely figured out how our brains work.

It’s impossible to pin down one exact place where a memory lands
and lives in our grey matter, because the brain acts more like a
network than a filing cabinet. We do know that one area of the
brain, called the hippocampus, is involved in keeping track of
our memories.

In a state of heightened emotion, such as an attack or an
assault, the stress hormones we release can strengthen
connections in that area of the brain, even growing extra nerve
cell extensions (dendrites) and leading to a chronic state of
hyper-vigilance

The body has a few options when presented with a threat like
that: freeze, fly, or fight.

The heart quickens, and we’re breathing swiftly, readying to
fight back, run, or hide. Blood may start flowing out to the
extremities as we prepare.

Memories of this period of “high emotional intensity” can have a
kind of “enhanced encoding,” making them more salient and clear,
as researchers wrote in a 2018 paper in the Journal of the
American Osteopathic
Association
  

A deluge of long-term effects 

Studies show that survivors of sexual assaults can suffer all
kinds of troubling health effects. They have demonstrated higher
rates of obesity and Type-2
diabetes
, gastrointestinal issues (like irritable
bowel syndrome)
, depression,
and chronic
pain
. Trauma survivors can even be less likely to
seek preventive care
, because anything from a routine teeth
cleaning to a pelvic exam can be a re-traumatizing experience of
touch.

David Emerson, a yoga teacher at the Trauma Center of the Justice
Resource Institute in Massachusetts, has studied
how yoga might be able to help trauma survivors by allowing them
to reconnect with their bodies. He says there are essentially two
ways that trauma victims conjure up memories. One is explicit —
the memories that we have words for and can share with others.
The other kind of memory is a more implicit form.

“Implicit memories are things we don’t have words for, but
that our bodies 

know,” he
said. 

“O
ur bodies will
react, 

but we might not have language
f

or what’s happening, 
we just
might shut down, 

or we might
withdraw, 

we could 
lash
out, 

whatever the response. T
here
may be no language, 

but that would be
considered a
traumatic 

memory 
enacted.” 

The ways that implicit memory works inside our body are
still not fully understood, he
says,

 “
but 
there
seems to be a distinction between traumatic
memories 

and non-traumatic
memories.” 

When we are reminded of a traumatic memory, it often
triggers some kind of flashback, and along with it, a bodily
response. 

“I
t’s your whole organism that remembers the
experience,” Emerson said.

Often, the first and most persistent memories of a
traumatic event come as feelings, tastes, sounds. That’s what
Ford said she remembers most about the night of her alleged
attack. 

“The details about that night that bring me here today are ones I
will never forget,” Ford said in prepared remarks Thursday.
“They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me,
especially as an adult.” 

In her testimony, Ford mentioned the sound of laughter as
what she remembered the most from the alleged incident.

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford said on
Thursday. “The uproarious laughter between the two [boys] and
their having fun at my expense.”

That tracks with what we know about the power of a traumatic
memory.

“T
hose kinds of things, 
they
seem to be incredibly persistent, 

more reliable
than narrative memory,” Emerson said.

Trauma is tougher when you feel powerless

Many psychologists and therapists operate under the assumption
that the best way to deal with trauma is to talk about it. But
there’s really no reward for sexual assault survivors who choose
to process their trauma out loud. It’s been much better to remain
silent, speechless, and keep those memories hidden. 

Ahead of the Thursday hearing, 85 year-old Supreme Court Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsberg spoke up about that very problem. 

“Every woman of my vintage has not just one story but many
stories,” she
told a crowd of law students
at Georgetown on Wednesday. “But
we thought there was nothing you could do about it — boys will be
boys — so just find a way to get out of it.”

In other words, the effects of feeling stuck and incapacitated
are much larger than a neuro-biological issue. Trauma
isn’t always something that happens in a single person’s nervous
system. It can be ingrained in a culture. 

“The abuse of power is so rampant and so obvious and so
constant,” Emerson said. “I
n the past, pushing back
against that power has been a futile exercise.”

He thinks we’re seeing some of the first signs that’s no
longer the case, as with Ford’s testimony. 

“People are feeling 
the impact of chronic
power abuse,” he said. “B

ut 
for
some reason, some people have access to [say] ‘

no
more. 

That’s not going to happen
anymore.'”

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