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Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony: Is the Devil in the Details, or Not?

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“She [Professor Christine Blasey Ford] can’t tell us how she got home and how she got there,” scorned Senator Lindsey Graham during the lunch break of yesterday’s riveting U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding Ford’s memory of being assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Graham’s assumption, widely voiced by fellow skeptics of Ford’s testimony, is that her inability to remember simple peripheral details discounts the authenticity of her assault memory.

 

But Graham and the other skeptics fail to understand, first, how extreme emotions signal the brain to “save this!” for future reference. (Likely you, too, have enduring “flashbulb memories” for long-ago emotional experiences?) And second, they fail to understand that peripheral details typically fall into oblivion. In Psychology, 12th Edition, Nathan DeWall and I explain:

 

Our emotions trigger stress hormones that influence memory formation. When we are excited or stressed, these hormones make more glucose energy available to fuel brain activity, signaling the brain that something important is happening. Moreover, stress hormones focus memory. Stress provokes the amygdala (two limbic system, emotion processing clusters) to initiate a memory trace that boosts activity in the brain’s memory-forming areas (Buchanan, 2007; Kensinger, 2007) (FIGURE 8.9). It’s as if the amygdala says, “Brain, encode this moment for future reference!” The result? Emotional arousal can sear certain events into the brain, while disrupting memory for irrelevant events (Brewin et al., 2007; McGaugh, 2015).

 

Significantly stressful events can form almost unforgettable memories. After a traumatic experience—a school shooting, a house fire, a rape—vivid recollections of the horrific event may intrude again and again. It is as if they were burned in: “Stronger emotional experiences make for stronger, more reliable memories,” noted James McGaugh (1994, 2003). Such experiences even strengthen recall for relevant, immediately preceding events [such as going up the stairway and into the bedroom, in Ford’s case] (Dunsmoor et al., 2015: Jobson & Cheraghi, 2016). This makes adaptive sense: Memory serves to predict the future and to alert us to potential dangers. Emotional events produce tunnel vision memory. They focus our attention and recall on high priority information, and reduce our recall of irrelevant details (Mather & Sutherland, 2012). Whatever rivets our attention gets well recalled, at the expense of the surrounding context.

 

And as I suggested in last week’s essay, Graham and others seem not to understand “state-dependent memory”—that what people experience in one state (such as when drunk) they may not remember in another state (sober). Nor are Kavanaugh’s supporters recognizing that heavy drinking disrupts memory formation, especially for an experience that would not have been traumatic for him. Thus, Kavanaugh could be sincerely honest in not recalling an assaultive behavior, but also, possibly, sincerely wrong.

 

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit www.TalkPsych.com.)

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About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.