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Memory And Trauma


The hearing yesterday was many things for the millions of Americans watching it. It was a grim reminder of trauma in many people's own lives and the power and limits of memory. Watching Christine Blasey Ford testify was like watching her relive the assault in her mind 36 years later. We're going to hear now from someone with a specialty in stress, trauma - sexual trauma, in particular - and memory. A warning to our listeners - the content of this conversation will be disturbing to some. Her name is Tracey Shors, and she's a professor of neuroscience and behavior at Rutgers University. And Tracey, thank you so much for being with us.

TRACEY SHORS: Thank you for asking me.

MARTIN: When Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony, she said she was terrified to be there. Her voice shook. Her throat caught as she spoke. But she also described her symptoms in a way that showed her training as a psychologist, which was really interesting. I want to play a clip that begins with a question from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Let's listen.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Can you tell us what impact the events had on you?

CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD: Well, I think that the sequelae of sexual assault varies by person. So for me, personally, anxiety, phobia and PTSD-like symptoms are the types of things that I've been coping with - so more specifically, claustrophobia, panic and that type of thing.

MARTIN: Did you find her testimony to reveal a special amount of insight into her own psyche as a result of her training?

SHORS: Yes. I did, actually. I mean, it's hard to know how much of it as a result of her training, but I assume it is. She's clearly very intelligent and educated, well-spoken and has clearly thought a lot about what happened to her. You know, she's been able to kind of put it in context, been able to go on with her life, it seems.

MARTIN: What struck you most about her testimony?

SHORS: What struck me most? I guess when she was retelling her story how she - even though she was on, you know, television and millions and millions of people were watching her, she was able to go back there.

MARTIN: Is that atypical? Because it had been 30-odd years - more than that.

SHORS: Yeah. I don't know if it's atypical. You know, it's something that I think people - particularly if they thought about it a lot or told the story a lot - can somewhat remove themselves and not maybe go with their feelings as much. So I thought that was pretty interesting that she was able to show, you know, really how - the fear that she felt even in just reminding herself of the story.

MARTIN: At one point, the prosecutor who was hired to ask the questions, Rachel Mitchell, complimented Professor Ford on her on her professional knowledge. I'm going to play this clip.


RACHEL MITCHELL: I've been really impressed today because you've talked about norepinephrine and cortisol and what we call in the profession, basically, the neurobiological effects of trauma.

MARTIN: What are the neurobiological effects of trauma? And how did we see them play out in her?

SHORS: Well, there are many. She mentioned norepinephrine and epinephrine, which are neurotransmitters that are released when we feel very stressed. In general, they're really - they're good for us. I mean, we want to have lots of energy when we're in a fearful situation. So they bring - the heart rate increases, so we bring more oxygen to our muscles and to our brain. So, in general, those neurotransmitters are super useful.

MARTIN: It was interesting because she's an expert, but at the same time, she's relaying her own story. So when I was watching this, it was if one minute she is that frightened teenager in that bedroom and the next, she's kind of above herself. She's outside of herself. She's the psychologist analyzing...

SHORS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Her own memories.

SHORS: Yeah. I have to say I sympathize with that a little bit. I have studied the brain for 30 years. And I've studied memory for most of that time. And so in the laboratory, it's kind of easy to realize that memories are in our brain. They're part of our biology. They don't exist outside of our brain, really. And yet as soon as you - at least for me, as soon as I leave the lab, my memories seem very real. And our brain is so good at going back in time, into the future, back into the present. It's like a movie. It's seamless. But it's hard to really grasp the fact that it's our brain that's doing that...

MARTIN: Does...

SHORS: ...Not as if we're replaying a movie.

MARTIN: Right - so can you talk more about that? I mean, because we've heard people discuss the fact that - I mean, memory is complicated, right? And how could she be so sure about certain details like Brett Kavanaugh's identity and not remember really where she was or when she was there?

SHORS: Yeah. Well, our brain is set up to remember things that are important for survival. So when we're really afraid, when we're stressed - particularly when we're afraid, we're going to remember the cues associated with what caused that fear. We call it - oftentimes, we call it the context. So that would mean, like, where it happened, the room, the layout. But it wouldn't necessarily refer to things that weren't immediately associated with the fear. And it certainly wouldn't relate to things that happened beforehand because she didn't know it was going to happen. You know, her brain didn't know that that was going to happen. So it wasn't - it wouldn't be able to make that memory particularly any more encoded than say, you know, a memory of what you had for lunch last week.

MARTIN: Yeah. As I mentioned in the intro, I mean, so many people were watching this. It was difficult for a lot of people to absorb hearing her. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network said it experienced an unprecedented jump in calls - 147 percent increase in calls. Can you speak to that? I mean, this hearing was basically a massive trigger of other people's trauma, I imagine.

SHORS: Yeah. I saw that. That was pretty horrifying to think about. Yes, we have these memories in our brains so that we can avoid similar situations in the future. And sometimes even just by hearing about something similar, that will reactivate those memories. Of course, under normal circumstances, you would want that. If you were in a similar situation and you felt like your life was in danger, you would want to your brain to warn you.


SHORS: Yeah. So it's - to some extent, you know, they're useful. It's just hard, I think, for people watching - I was thinking about this this morning. It must feel also that they don't have any control...

MARTIN: Right.

SHORS: ...Because we're not voting. We don't have a say, per se. So it also adds to the feeling of, oh, this is out of my control.

MARTIN: Tracey Shors is a professor of neuroscience and behavior at Rutgers University. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SHORS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.