To Believe or Not to Believe: The Complications of Trauma Victims' Memories

When people are in life or death situations, they’re often left with trauma. Later when asked to recall what happened,they can only recall certain parts. Why is that? And shouldn't they be able to remember everything? According to a survey sent out to the City and Country community, 48% of people said that if were in a life or death situation they would remember everything. Well, according to Time Ma

gazine, the opposite is true because ones brain tends to focus in on specific details. So people may be able to vividly remember specific details and not others. In addition, trauma victims often try to forget what happened, making details of the event event more difficult to recall.

So when victims of rape or assault go to court to call for an investigation, many skeptics focus on their faulty memory. That was the case in the 1991 accusation of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment by Anita Hill or more recently, Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanagh. Skeptics reason that if victims can’t remember exactly what happened, how can they remember that they were assaulted?

As a comparison, the C&C community was asked, “If you went and saw a movie, but couldn’t remember where, or exactly what happened, can you be sure you saw the movie?” 67% of the people surveyed said, “Yes, of course!” So why do we doubt cases like Ford’s and Hill’s?

Well, unlike when seeing a forgettable movie, during a traumatic event there’s high stress, fear, and terror. This means that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, may be mixed up, or stop working. For instance, if you’ve ever been taking a test and make a stupid mistake you wouldn’t have made otherwise, that’s the prefrontal cortex malfunctioning. Similarly during traumatic events, once fear kicks in, there’s no way to control what the brain is focusing on, and it will be less likely be able to recall details in a orderly way. So during an assault, or other traumatic experience, the brain will focus on other details to take attention away from what’s happening. Fear also affects the hippocampus, where memories are stored. Making memories before or after the realization of being attacked unclear. This means victims of trauma will not be able to recall the whole event in detail. On the other hand, according to Psychology Today, an experiment was done where people were shown a short film about a fatal car accident. Certain scenes from the film were deleted, afterwards the participants took a quiz asking them what they remembered from the movie. They found that participants falsely remembered parts that were cut out of the movie, and that the false memories were more likely to be traumatic ones. In an following study, the research team found the false memories were more likely to occur during a traumatic scene vs a non-traumatic one. A different study performed on war veterans asked to recall their experiences found that 88% changed their response for at least one event, while 61% changed more than one. Most of the changes were whether the event actually happened or not.

So while there are scientific reasons to believe or not to believe, we’re expecting victims of assault, rape and trauma to remember things they’ve tried to forget, or even can’t remember. Almost 30% of the C&C community expected survivors of rape, assault or trauma to remember exactly what happened, while another 54% believed that some people may be able to remember everything that happened. So while skepticism is good, draw a line where you may be holding these people to an unrealistic standard.

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