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The Effects Of Sexual Assault On The Brain


The Senate judiciary committee is set to vote today on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The hearing about a sexual assault accusation provoked different emotions for the millions of Americans watching it. For many, it was a grim reminder of trauma in their own lives and the power and limits of memory. For some, watching Christine Blasey Ford testify Christine Blasey Ford was like watching her relive the alleged assault in her mind 36 years later. We're going to hear now from someone with a specialty in stress, sexual trauma and memory. Jim Hopper is a teaching associate at Harvard Medical School, an expert on sexual assault and its effects on the brain. And he joins us in our studios. Dr. Hopper, thanks for coming in.

JIM HOPPER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: When Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony, she said she was terrified to be there. Her voice shook. Her throat often caught as she spoke. But she also described her symptoms in a way that showed her training as a psychologist.


MARTIN: 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 event's had on you?

CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD: Well, I think that the sequela 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 on her part into her own psyche?

HOPPER: Yes, definitely. I mean, she's someone who's thought about this for a long time, studied it, struggled with it personally. And as we heard in that clip, you know, she brings out words that are technical, like sequela, basically meaning the effects of things. So yes, she definitely was - had insight into it. At the same time, sometimes people use technical language in real abstractions in order to distance themselves from the emotions that are associated with it or the sensations, visual images and things like that that could come back. So it can have that purpose as well.

MARTIN: Did you see that happen? I thought - I mean, I'm not an expert at all, but I thought, as watching it, there were moments when you could clearly see she was in that place. She was that 15-year-old girl in that room. And then all of a sudden, she's the psychologist again.

HOPPER: Yes, definitely. And this is something that a lot of people struggle with, but you don't have to be a psychologist. People have their abstractions that they hold onto to push away the sensations and the emotions. And so it's very common. We can see that oscillation in her yesterday. Yes.

MARTIN: Republicans pointed out the gaps in her memory, that there was a lack of corroborating evidence. Are memory gaps to be expected from an event like this?

HOPPER: Definitely. I mean, memory gaps are really to be expected from any experience. We're not taking in everything we're experiencing right now. Some things we're focusing our attention on or have emotional significance to us, that's getting in. Those are called central details. But the things we're not noticing or aren't emotionally significant, they're not getting in. They're not getting encoded, and they're not going to get stored away. In a traumatic experience, as she talked about, there's this release of chemicals that affects the hippocampus. And that differential encoding between what is focused on and what's peripheral, that's greatly amplified.

MARTIN: So it would make sense to you that she could remember Brett Kavanaugh's face and name without a doubt, with a 100 percent certainty. But she couldn't remember the house she was in. She couldn't remember when it happened.

HOPPER: Yeah, so that would be totally consistent with how memory works. And one thing I'd like to say is, you know, we can say it happened at a house. We can say it happened at a party. But what really got burned into her brain most of all was what happened in that room, and that room was a world away from that house and that party, a world of violence and horror for her.

MARTIN: You train DA offices around the country, military leaders, police departments on trauma and memory recall from traumatic events. Can you talk about the importance of setting? I mean, as you conduct these trainings - I mean, this was in public. This was...


MARTIN: ...Broadcast across the country. What is the impact of giving that kind of testimony and trying to elicit real memories on the part...


MARTIN: ...Of Rachel Mitchell who was trying to get her...


MARTIN: ...To recall this? How did the setting play into it?

HOPPER: Yeah. So if we're talking about memories, you know, they get encoded. Then they may get stored. And then we have to retrieve them. And so the - what determines what gets retrieved is probably the context that we're in, as you're describing, the setting. And another thing we know is that stress impairs retrieval. So on the one hand, stress can really burn in those central details. But stress can impair our ability to retrieve them. And so as that experience is unfolding for her, it's going to sometimes impair her ability to retrieve things. And so we often heard Ms. Mitchell saying, what are you able to remember? And really what that question means is, what are you able to retrieve right now in this setting, in the state of mind and body that you are in? And there may be things that are burned into her brain that stress could make it hard to retrieve in that context.

MARTIN: It was also interesting she was very clear on what she didn't remember as well. And I imagine when dealing with witnesses, that is a good indicator - people who know their limits and are willing to articulate them.

HOPPER: It certainly helps things be clearer for everybody involved, that people can have - try to have that straight forward about what they're - they know and what they're doubtful about. Yes.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about how the country writ large kind of internalized all of this because as people were listening to Dr. Ford's testimony, there were a lot of calls into hotlines. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network said it experienced an unprecedented jump in calls - a jump of 147 percent.


MARTIN: I mean, can you just speak to that? Was this hearing basically a massive trigger for other people's trauma?

HOPPER: Yes, definitely. So, you know, people are sitting at home, watching or watching at an airport or something like that. And they are encountering all these reminders of their own trauma. And it's activating their brain, their body. And then, again, those sensations and emotions can start flooding in. And it can be very overwhelming to the normal defenses that they have against that.

MARTIN: Did you watch the testimony of Brett Kavanaugh?

HOPPER: I did. Yes.

MARTIN: Also emotional, compelling. He displayed his own sense of pain, talked about what this has done to his family. Do you believe based on what you saw of him that he, too, has been traumatized by this?

HOPPER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we could all see that. I mean, his emotions were raw. It was extreme.

MARTIN: And when you look at the sum total of that experience, it - if it was supposed to elicit truth about what happened in that room on that night, do you think the memories pieced together give us any bigger picture about what did happen?

HOPPER: Well, I would say, you know, what happened yesterday was we had a prosecutor asking her questions that were focused on everything except what happened in that room. And then the Democrats didn't spend that much time - two, maybe three senators asked her, what do you most remember? So the - it was set up in a way that would reduce the amount of information we would get from her about what she could remember about what happened in that room.

MARTIN: So it reinforced people's feelings about the whole situation and the credibility of the witnesses...


MARTIN: ...In other words. Jim Hopper is an expert on trauma and the brain. Thank you so much for being with us this morning. We appreciate it.

HOPPER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.