Dr. Christine Blasey Ford Taught America How Trauma Is Encoded in the Brain
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter."
When Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D., testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she was uniquely positioned to answer questions about her memories. She is, after all, an accomplished professor of psychology. Prior to her testimony, Blasey’s memories were questioned: How could it be that some details were vivid, while others gone? On Thursday, Blasey drew on her professional expertise to explain why, giving the country a master class in trauma while she relived her own.
Blasey is a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She has a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Southern California, a Master’s degree in epidemiology from the Stanford University School of Medicine, and a Master’s degree in clinical psychology. Years of schooling and professional experience allowed her to act as her own expert witness, and as her memory was questioned she replied with scientific expertise.
When Senator Dianne Feinstein asked how Blasey could be sure it was Kavanaugh who attacked her, the professor replied:
Just basic memory functions and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that, as you know, encodes that neurotransmitter that encodes memories into the hippocampus. So the trauma-related experience is locked there whereas other details kind of drift.
Norepinephrine and epinephrine are two essential modulators of memories. Norepinephrine is an organic compound that’s released either as a hormone into the blood or as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Numerous studies have confirmed that it plays an essential role in the retention of memory for emotionally charged events. In 2004, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine discovered that norepinephrine is especially essential in retrieving certain types of memories — most commonly, emotional memories linked to PTSD.
Studies demonstrate that epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, also selectively enhances the memories of emotionally arousing material. An endogenous stress hormone, epinephrine is released during and immediately after stressful events. In turn, it enhances the consolidation of those experiences, turning them into long-term memories.
The involvement of these chemicals in the process of memory encoding helps explain why Blasey would remember emotionally charged moments at the party, like the attack, and not other details, like everyone who attended. People with PTSD or PTSD-like symptoms, like Blasey, often suffer from a combination of crystal-clear intrusive memories and memory lapse because of the severe effect the experience has had on the brain’s hippocampus. When levels of arousal and stress become overpowering, the hippocampus begins to fail at encoding details, like the date of the event. But stress and arousal also bolster the amygdala’s processing of sensory memories, leaving one with well-encoded, detailed memories of traumatic events.
This is why one thing Blasey can’t help but remember is how Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughed while they attacked her.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Blasey said. “The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
If you want to learn more about PTSD, here’s a video about a possible new way to treat it: