Christine Blasey Ford's testimony lines up with what we know about memories of sexual assault — here's the science

Saul Loeb/Getty ImagesChristine Blasey Ford at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 27, 2018.

The testimony of Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday is quickly generating commentary from across the political spectrum as a sympathetic, believable account.

Ford alleges that during the summer of 1982, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party.

“I believed he was going to rape me,” Ford told Senators on Thursday.

On Fox News, Chris Matthews called Ford’s testimony “extremely emotional, extremely raw, and extremely credible.”

Kavanaugh testified immediately after Ford on Thursday, forcefully denying the allegations and saying they have “destroyed my family and my good name.”

Facts of the case aside, the psychology professor’s comments before lawmakers in Washington square with what we know about how traumatic memories can be seared into the brains of sexual assault victims.

[Read More: What happens to your brain and body after a traumatic experience like sexual assault, according to science.]

During Ford’s questioning, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont asked what her single, strongest memory was from the alleged attack.

One detail stood out to Ford above the rest. It wasn’t Kavanaugh’s words, she said, but rather a sound.

“Uproarious laughter” she said, emanated from both Kavanaugh and a friend of his, Mark Judge, who she remembered “having fun at my expense.”

She remembered an intoxicated Kavanaugh groping her and pinning her down, putting his hand over her mouth to stifle her screams.

“I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed,” she said Thursday.

On NBC, anchor Savannah Guthrie said Ford’s memory of the laughing boys was one that would resonate with many others.

Research on traumatic memories shows us that sounds and feelings can be some of the most persistent memories of traumatic events, more enduring than a conversation or a remark.

The hippocampus, tucked deep in the brain’s center, 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, making memories of upsetting events more clear, as researchers wrote in a 2018 paper in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

Ford said that was the case with her alleged attack.

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford told Leahy.

David Emerson, a yoga teacher at the Trauma Center of the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts, studies how yoga can help trauma survivors reconnect with their bodies. He said the first and most persistent memories of a traumatic event often come up as these types of feelings, tastes, and sounds.

“Those kinds of things, they seem to be incredibly persistent, more reliable than narrative memory,” Emerson said.

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