Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee did a pretty good job of rigging today's hearing on Christine Blasey Ford's allegations against SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh. No other witnesses, no subpoena for Mark Judge, nothing but the nominee and the accuser answering questions. Of course, they appear to have forgotten that Dr. Blasey brought her own expert witness with her: Dr. Christine Blasey Ford of Stanford and Palo Alto University, whose master's thesis was on the links between trauma and depression, and whose entire research career has focused on survivors of trauma and their resilience. So it should be no surprise that Dr. Blasey brought the science in her testimony today.

Republicans made much of the fact that Blasey says she vividly remembers details of the attack in 1982, but doesn't remember the exact date of the assault, or the street address of the house where it happened. Funny you should ask how that's possible, guys! Here's Dr. Blasey answering a question from Dianne Feinstein about how the sexual assault affected her, and why she's certain her assailant was Brett Kavanaugh:

Feinstein: How are you so sure that it was he?

Blasey: The same way that I'm sure that I'm talking to you right now, just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain [...] That neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience then is kind of locked there whereas other details kind of drift.

So what you are telling us is that this could not be a case of mistaken identity?

Absolutely not

Blasey also described the one memory that stood out above all others: Hearing Brett Kavanaugh and his buddy Mark Judge laughing like drunken idiots as her body was pinned down under him. [Edit: Yes, the memory of hearing about that laughter will stay with all American women for a long, long time. -- FDF]

Leahy: Let's go back to the incident. What is the strongest memory you have, the strongest memory of the incident, something you cannot forget? [...]

Blasey: Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.

Leahy: You've never forgotten that laughter. You've never forgotten them laughing at you?

Blasey: They were laughing with each other.

Leahy: And you were the object of the laughter?

Blasey: I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed.

That shorthand description -- and, oh Jesus, illustration -- of how memory of trauma works, and how it's different from normal memory, has been the subject of multiple articles in the days since the story broke, featuring other experts on trauma and memory. And yep, they all agree: traumatic memories tend to be fragmentary and focused on intense, searing emotional details -- being pushed, wanting to scream but hearing someone turn the music up much louder, a hand over her mouth, two drunken boys laughing -- are nearly indelible, while other details are muted, if not lost altogether. Here's Harvard psychologist Richard McNally on NPR, talking stress hormones with host Ari Shapiro:

McNally: In fact, the stress hormones that are released during a terrifying experience tend to render the central features of that experience vivid and memorable. That said, the process does not operate like a videotape machine. So for example, it doesn't infallibly encode every detail of the experience. Nevertheless, the central features are typically retained - often all too well, as the case of post-traumatic stress disorder exemplifies, and sometimes at the expense of the peripheral details.

Shapiro: Do you find that these kinds of memories change over time the farther people get from the event?

McNally: No, not necessarily. With traumatic events, they're fairly stable. I mean, memory is - it's a dynamic process. That's true. But to the extent that you've experienced the intense emotion at the encoding of the memories, it tends to render the central features of them quite stable. So you find this with war veterans, rape victims, victims of torture or natural disaster. They don't forget these things. They tend to be recalled quite vividly.

When you're 15 and have been raped, what stays with you is the laughter, the stumbling drunk jock. Not the street address. Not the calendar. Not even how exactly you got home after you left. Heck, in a real hearing, a clinical psychologist who isn't also the rape victim explain the science in detail on the witness stand.

Oh, but what about the people who Blasey said were at the party? Why don't they remember that party at all? In the case of Mark Judge, of course, we'll never find out, because all the GOP wants to know is that he wrote a letter saying no such party ever happened, THE END. The other two people at the party don't remember being there, though. Isn't that proof it never happened?

Ford's answer holds up quite well, given how non-traumatic memories are encoded and recalled: she calmly explained, "Nothing remarkable happened to them. They were downstairs." It was just another party, no more memorable than a night watching TV.

Of course, even after this morning's testimony, Lindsey Graham was still fixated on Ford's "failure" to remember a peripheral event:

You can provide a quick lesson on how traumatic memory works. But you can't really expect people to learn anyone, now can you. Especially when they're highly motivated not to learn a single goddamned thing.

And now it is your Open Thread!

[NPR / Slate / Rolling Stone / "Dissociation and memory fragmentation" (PDF download for geeks) / CNBC]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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