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The Science Behind Memory of Sexual Assault Trauma

In the 2018 Senate Judiciary hearings that ultimately led to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, much speculation revolved around the memories Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Dr. Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault at a high school gathering more than 30 years ago. She could not recall certain details, such as what time she arrived at the gathering or who drove her home. However, other details, especially those of the alleged assault itself, she remembered with crystal clarity.

Many senators and Kavanaugh supporters claimed that because she could not remember everything about that day, her accusations were not reliable. The prosecutor hired to question Dr. Ford filed a memo that Dr. Ford’s memories were not “consistent” and lacked “key details,” while others at the gathering did not corroborate her account. However, if you consider the science behind how sexual assault survivors remember what happened, the gaps in Dr. Ford’s memory shouldn’t be surprising.

Trauma and Memory

One psychological expert on trauma and memory, Dr. Jim Hopper, prepared a statement to read at the Senate hearing regarding the science of what Dr. Ford does and does not remember. Though he did not get a chance to testify, he published his planned remarks online, along with additional articles regarding the science behind memories of traumatic events. His research and findings apply to sexual assault victims as well as military members and police officers who experienced traumatizing battle or violence.

According to Dr. Hopper, the hippocampus in our brains separates memories of traumatic events into two categories: central details and peripheral details. The central details usually involve the negative event itself, while peripheral details can include details surrounding the trauma that are less important to the brain. The brain will then allow a trauma victim to remember the central details clearly and possibly not recall the peripheral details at all. For example, the brain may code a time of arrival before an assault and who drove home after an assault as peripheral details. Just because a person cannot remember peripheral details does not necessarily mean that the central details are unreliable.

To make matters more complicated, school investigators and authorities can often unknowingly distort memories of trauma. If there are gaps in a victim’s memory, leading or suggestive questioning may result in a victim filling in those gaps with information that is not necessarily true.

Thus, it is important for police officers, school investigators, and other authorities to understand how to interview trauma victims to best understand their account of what happened. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and investigations can result in distorted information and wrongful charges.

Call for a Case Evaluation with Our Experienced Title IX Lawyers

The above does not even scratch the surface when it comes to the science behind memory and sexual trauma. If you are a student involved in a Title IX investigation, it’s important to consult with a lawyer that understands how trauma impacts what the brain processes and remembers. Representatives for both complainants and respondents should understand the science of trauma to prevent wrongful findings in sexual assault and Title IX investigations at colleges.

The Title IX and College Code of Conduct attorneys at Nesenoff & Miltenberg, LLP can help. Call us at 212-736-4500 or contact us online to schedule your case evaluation today.