Science

The junk science that undermined Ford's testimony and helped save Kavanaugh

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Christine Blasey Ford closes her eyes as she is sworn in before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill on Sept. 27. (Jim Bourg/Reuters) (JIM BOURG/Reuters)
October 7 at 8:00 AM

The politically convenient, scientifically baseless theory that sexual assault so traumatized Christine Blasey Ford she mixed up her attacker is now something like common wisdom for many Republicans.

President Trump explicitly endorsed the theory Saturday, shortly after Brett M. Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed as a Supreme Court judge, telling reporters he was “100 percent” sure Ford accused Kavanaugh in error.

In days leading up to the confirmation vote, the same notion was implicit in the rationale of every senator who attempted to defend Kavanaugh without wholly dismissing Ford’s accusations — her vivid testimony that he pinned her to a bed and tried to rape her when they were teens in the 1980s:

  • “I believe that she is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life,” said Susan Collins (R-Maine), who gave Kavanaugh his crucial 50th vote.
  • “Something happened to Dr. Ford; I don’t believe the facts show it was Brett M. Kavanaugh,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the only Democrat to support the nominee.
  • “That would get me off the hook of having to make a hard decision,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Kavanaugh’s most loyal defenders. “I don’t know if this is a case of mistaken identity.”

It’s easy to forget that less than three weeks ago, when the mistaken-identity theory was first formulated, it was so widely ridiculed that a pundit who advanced it on Twitter subsequently apologized and offered to resign from his job. But for many cognitive researchers who study how memories actually form during traumatic events, the theory never stopped sounding ridiculous.

“The person lying on top of you — who she’d previously met — you’re not going to forget that,” said Richard Huganir, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “There’s a total consensus in the field of memory … If anything, fear and trauma enhances the encoding of the memory at a molecular level.”

As he and several other researchers told The Washington Post, being attacked floods the brain with chemicals, including norepinephrine, which helps people remember whatever they are focused on. (Ford, a psychologist herself, even mentioned it in her testimony.)

It’s essentially the same phenomenon that makes people forever remember what they were doing when the planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, or when they learned John F. Kennedy was shot. It’s such a basic tenet of psychology and cognitive science that some researchers watched the mistaken-identity theory spread through the Senate this month with a sense of stunned dismay.

“I watched all the hearings that took place last week and was just floored at the number of people who offered that as an explanation,” said Ira Hyman, a cognitive psychologist who specializes in traumatic memories at Western Washington University.

“This story [of mistaken identity] that’s being offered here is a way of both trying to validate sexual assault and not deny it — which is a lovely change — but at the same time create a narrative that Kavanaugh couldn’t have been the person who did it,” he said. “That’s just not consistent with memory research on misidentification.”

Sexual assault victims do misidentify their attackers, he noted, but those are almost always attacks by strangers — when the victim’s hyperactive memory has no familiar face to etch into the brain.

Lila Davachi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University, analogized the traumatic memory formation process to cranking up the contrast on a photo — central details get heightened, while those in the background get washed out.

“If someone has a gun on you you’ll remember the gun. There’s a snapshot of critical features,” she said. “In this case it was a party with friends and she knew him. It is ridiculous to say she wouldn’t remember who it was.”

Asked last week if she could have mistaken her attacker, Ford testified that she is “100 percent” certain it was Kavanaugh. She vividly recalled other details of the night — the single beer she drank at the party, music in the bedroom she was pushed into, boys laughing as she was pinned to a bed — while having no memory of how she arrived or got home.

Trump has mocked her story because of these gaps, but it’s perfectly consistent with the science of traumatic memory formation.

Mara Mather, a professor at the University of Southern California, has performed laboratory studies in which volunteers are given electric shocks or subjected to loud noises while they look at a set of symbols — to find out which ones they remember while their brains are flooded with the same chemicals released during trauma.

“ I guess the Republicans have been debating why does she forget getting home, but that sounds very plausible,” she said. “It focuses the brain on whatever stands out at that moment. The things that are not standing out are even more ignored.”

Like other researchers, she could not recall a single case of a sexual assault victim misremembering a known attacker — save for rare instances in which people, often children, were coached into falsely accusing friends and family members.

“According to her account, she never forgot about this,” Mather noted. “She tried to.”

Also like researchers, she said Kavanaugh’s memory was more likely to be suspect than Ford’s, if he was as heavy a drinker in high school as many people who knew him have alleged.

“I could see a very plausible scenario where they are both telling the truth as they know it, and he is forgetting something that happened when he was drunk,” she said.

More reading:

Unlike Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford was a prosecutor’s dream witness

How alcohol causes blackouts and blocks memories

‘Willing to go to the mat’: How Trump and Republicans carried Kavanaugh to the cusp of confirmation

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