Memories Can Be Distorted – But Not in the Way That You Think
After the recent hearings regarding Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the recollection of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came into question.
One conservative pundit, Ben Shapiro, suggested that because we had “two believable testimonies and no corroborating evidence,” we should basically dismiss Blasey Ford’s accusation.
But in a disjointed opinion piece published on Newsweek.com, Shapiro confuses the science of memory, and what it tells us about how the brain forms, keeps, or distorts memories. Let’s walk through his claims and what science actually says about memory.
Ben Shapiro is a political conservative pundit and a one-time lawyer who now runs a conservative website. I guess it is for these reasons he believes he’s somehow a good authority to speak about how memory works in humans in general, and in sexual assault cases specifically.1 Shapiro begins by suggesting, “One report from the U.S. National Research Council explains that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable.”
That’s great if we were talking about an eyewitness to a traffic accident or a bank robbery. But a person who has been sexually assaulted is not an eyewitness at all — they are the victim. Those are two completely different roles, but it’s something Shapiro hopes you don’t think too critically about as he barrels through his muddy analysis.
This carries into a discussion about false memories. Shapiro quotes Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington, saying:
… memories are “more easily modified, for instance, when the passage of time allows the original memory to fade.” False memories “are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others.”
False memories have very little to do with ordinary memories, and even less to do with how memory works in victims of trauma, such as sexual assault. False memories can be introduced by suggestion, or by biased questioning in an attempt to manipulate another person.
There’s been no evidence presented that Dr. Blasey Ford’s memories are the result of false memories, so this digression is meaningless to her recollection of her trauma.
Lastly, Shapiro correctly notes, “findings from basic psychological research and neuroscience studies indicate that memory is a reconstructive process that is susceptible to distortion.” What specific kind of distortion? To dive into that question would put his argument at risk, so he doesn’t elaborate on this — the most important aspect in the discussion of victim memory.
Research Into Memory
Over decades of research, we have some idea about how human memories are formed. But to say we understand exactly how the brain stores, processes, and recalls memories at a later date would be overstepping our current knowledge. We have sets of theories and models about both memory and memory recall, and data to support a variety of them.
One thing we do know is that memory is not like a video recording or your computer’s memory. While in rare instances it may offer something close to precise recall, most memories are not stored in a way that gives us access to an exact replay of what happened. Instead, we store the memory for a period of time in short-term memory.
When we have a reason to keep a memory around, the brain appears to keep it alive due to an ongoing, long-term connection between the brain’s synaptic contacts. Because if there’s no strong emotional connection to the memory (or some other reason to keep recalling it), over time the brain will seemingly lose the ability to recall it (Texas A&M University, 2016). This is what happens to most of our memories.
Long-term memory is divided into two categories. Explicit memory is what people usually think of when they think of memory — consciously remembering events that happened to them. But there’s a second type of memory that’s just as important called implicit memory, which refers to how we remember to do things, such as doing the laundry. Psychologists call this procedural, nonconscious memory. Also included in implicit memory are emotional memories (Cozolino, 2002).
When lawyers like Shapiro refer to memory and eyewitness accounts, they are referring to explicit memory. And that’s why they get easily confused by accounts of sexual assault — which instead involves a form of implicit memory, emotional memory (Lodrick, 2007).
Sexual Assault & Memory
What does all this mean to a sexual assault victim?
This means that the threatened individual will potentially perceive the passing of time and concepts such as space, distance, and proximity inaccurately. Ultimately, this is likely to affect how such concepts are recalled. For some, the distortion in how they experienced an event will be recognised and they may, for example, declare “it felt like hours but, I suppose, it could have been a minute – I don’t know” […]
The effect on brain function […] can severely impair the person’s ability to recall details of the assault and recall may change over time. Memories of the traumatic event are often initially experienced as fragmented. Thus, for victims, sensory components, feelings, and emotions may be more easily recalled while a detailed narrative may not, initially, be accessible. (Mason & Lodrick, 2012).
This explains exactly why a sexual assault victim may not remember the specific time or details of the assault, but can still remember the perpetrator. What is distorted in a victim’s memory is a traditional narrative and timeline of the event — things that the police and prosecutors are most interested in. But the lack of this sort of detail doesn’t make the memory any less valid or credible — that’s just how victims encode this traumatic event into their memory (Koss et al., 1999).
This is what the police and prosecutors regularly get wrong about the memories of rape and sexual assault victims. They erroneously believe that because a victim can’t recall details of the event in exact detail and order, their memories are not credible or reliable (Hohl et al., 2017). This goes against everything that the scientific data tell us about victim memory.2
Afterwards, these memories become encoded in long-term memory because they are emotional memories. They are connected to a specific traumatic event in the person’s life — something most of us would have a hard time forgetting. And for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — more than 92 percent of victims after the first week and 43 percent of victims after three months — they keep recalling the memory over and over again, keeping that important brain synaptic connection alive.
This isn’t up for debate — this is scientific knowledge and widely accepted fact by psychologists and sexual assault researchers.
Who Can We Believe? The Victims
In a piece masquerading as a scientific analysis of memory, Shapiro shows his true political colors in concluding: “This is why no allegation, no matter how credible on the surface, should be taken at face value without a scintilla of corroborating evidence.”
Except, of course, when the science suggests that emotional memory is just as important and valid as explicit long-term memory. And the one thing victims rarely forget is the face of their rapist or the perpetrator of the assault.
Read Shapiro’s opinion piece on Newsweek.com: Two Believable Testimonies, No Corroborating Evidence
Cozolino, L. (2002). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: building and rebuilding the human brain. Norton, New York.
Hohl, Katrin; Conway, Martin A. (2017). Memory as evidence: How normal features of victim memory lead to the attrition of rape complaints. Criminology & Criminal Justice: An International Journal, 17(3), 248-265.
Koss, Mary P.; Figueredo, Aurelio José; Bell, Iris; Tharan, Melinda; Tromp, S. (1999). Traumatic memory characteristics: A cross-validated mediational model of response to rape among employed women. In: Trauma & memory. Williams, Linda M. (Ed); Banyard, Victoria L. (Ed). Sage Publications, Inc, 273-290.
Lodrick, Z. (2007). Psychological trauma: what every trauma worker should know. Br J Psychother Integr, 4, 18-28
Mason, F. & Lodrick, Z. (2012). Psychological consequences of sexual assault. Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 27 (1), 27-37.
Texas A&M University. (2016). How does memory work? ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 May 2016. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160517131928.htm
Special thanks to Elsevier’s ScienceDirect for access to their research database.
- It’s too bad that Newsweek.com tarnishes its reputation by publishing this opinion piece with apparently little editorial oversight or vetting, because this is one of the sloppiest pieces of attempted science journalism I’ve ever read in the mainstream news media. Whenever a non-scientist starts talking about research studies, you can usually be assured you’re going to get some clumsy, mediocre analysis. [↩]
- This is one of the primary reasons I would never take my scientific analysis from a one-time lawyer — they come at it from a distinct, legal-oriented bias that may not be consistent with the scientific evidence. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2018). Memories Can Be Distorted – But Not in the Way That You Think. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/memories-can-be-distorted-but-not-in-the-way-that-you-think/