SGU Episode 691

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SGU Episode 691
6th October 2018
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 690                      SGU 692

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

'The biggest gift of science is teaching us how to free our mind. So stay skeptical, be curious, and ask questions.'

Vince Ebert (German entertainer and science communicator)

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

News Items[edit]

Item 1 ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy? ()[edit]

Questions and Emails ()[edit]

Traumatic memory (57:47)[edit]

S: So we're gonna do one e-mail this week. This comes from Daniel Mangum from Tigard, Oregon--Oregon, er, T-I-G-A-R-D. TEE-gard? TIG-urd? TIG-ard?

J: TIG-eeeard...

E: Arrrrd, yes.

S: I don't know how to pronounce that. He writes: "I got my SGU book today…yipppeee! I started reading and finished chapter 2 on memory. I know you guys avoid politics as much as possible, but would you consider talking about this subject in the context of the recent testimony by Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh?"

E: No.

S: Uh, well, Daniel--

E: No.

S: Thanks for the positive comments about the book; this is the week the book launches, so we're getting a lot of people telling us about their experience reading the book; we appreciate it. So, yes, this is--while we do not try to get into political discussions, meaning talking about, like, promoting any particular partisan position or ideology, informing the science behind a politically important subject is exactly what we do, right? And so this is--this is interesting 'cause this is something that a lot of people are talking about in the last couple of weeks and most people have no idea what they're talking about, right?

E: Right.

S: And so they're going to then default to whatever their political opinion is, whereas I think what we should be doing is, regardless of what side of this issue we're on in terms of our partisan affiliations, we should try to get the science correct.

S: So let's--let's try to do that. Let's just, you know, try to back up a little bit, take a deep breath and say, alright, what do we know? And the good news is is that a lot has been written about this over the years, so I can go back and read an article about how do--does emotional trauma affect memory, for example. That was written a year ago, or two years ago. And it's not about this case or biased about it, it's just saying, "Here's what the literature shows," right?

S: As you might imagine, this is a complicated question. But this is the gist of what the research says so far: so, there's a lot of--first of all, there's a lot of context that we could talk about and there's a lot of different types of memory that we could talk about. Memory itself is a complicated thing. Let me hit the highlights that I think would be relevant in trying to understand this kind of case.

S: If you've been living under a rock, you know Dr. Blasey Ford has accused Judge Kavanaugh, who is Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, that, when they were in high school, when he was 17 and she was 15, at a party, he got drunk, he and his friend, whose name is Judge, right? Mark Judge, Mike Judge, uh...were in--they took her to a bedroom and Bret Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, tried to rape her, but she was able to escape, you know, before there was any actual rape. But he did sexually assault her. Of course, this is 36 years ago, yeah, and Dr. Blasey Ford says she's 100 percent certain that this happened and that it was Bret Kavanaugh who did it; Bret Kavanaugh says he's 100 percent certain that he didn't do it; that this event never happened.

E: And that he also says we was not at the said party.

S: That's, that's a more complicated bit because, uh, Ford--

E: That's his claim.

S: Well, yeah, but what party, right? The thing is--yeah, he's saying--did he say that he was never at any party with Ford?

E: Uh, no he didn't say...I don't know if he's saying that.

S: So, here's the thing: so Ford says--is able to recall certain details about this evening. Uh, she--there's, like, random details about the house and what happened. She says that, while this was happening, the two guys were laughing and their laughter's burned into her memory. But she's not exactly sure where the house was or what day it was that this happened and she's not quite sure how she got home, for example. But she is sure about some details. And so this has sparked the discussion: what is the significance of her memory--her partial memory of this event? Does this call into question the credibility of her memory, or of her sincerity, of her veracity?

S: Okay, what do we know about memory in general and memory that results from an emotionally traumatic event, specifically, right? So, memories in general, we know, again, if you read the book, our chapter in the book on this, memories are terrible.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: From the moment they're created, they're a partial narrative about happened. We select what information gets through. You know, this is all usually subconscious. It's filtered; it's biased by our expectations and our perceptions and what we already think is going on. You know, we have sort of a narrative about what we believe happened; that becomes our memory and then, over time, that memory morphs. It could morph with other memories; you can fuse details, you can switch details; you can switch the perspective. A third-person memory can become a first-person memory, et cetera.

S: But: there is some research on the effects of emotionally charged events on memory. And what they show is that high emotion tends to increase memory. But usually only if it's a negative emotion. So, negative emotions have, uh, enhanced memory. But the evidence suggests they have what's called focal memory enhancement. And what that means is that some details are enhanced while others are not. And that is--

E: That's complex. Oh my gosh.

S: It's complicated, but--so what ends up happening is--and, of course, you know, for example, women who have been sexually assaulted, raped, or whatever, anything that would be, you know, a violent encounter like that, they tend to have these vivid, stable, clear memories of specific details. And, really, they weren't processing and don't really remember, or their memories just fade for other details. They fade or morph, or whatever. And so you end up with this patchy kind of memory. "Oh, I distinctly remember what music was playing, but I don't know where we were." You know, that's a very typical feature of a negative--emotionally negative traumatic memory. That's what the research shows.

S: But there's also another phenomenon which has been demonstrated, and that's called memory enhancement. And what happens is, as people remember emotionally traumatic events, they may--their memory may alter to enhance the emotional significance of the event. This is worsened--uh, this effect is increased if you try to visualize, like if you force yourself to remember, or to re-live the event, or to visualize it. So, it's something that very easily can happen in therapy, for example.

S: My takeaway from all of this is that Dr. Ford's memory is actually completely compatible with the research on what the memory of that type of event would be like. Certain details are vivid; certain details are burned into her memory; she reports other details are lost or foggy or faded. That's typical. The fact that she doesn't remember those things does not call into question the veracity of her memory. It's not incompatible with a traumatic memory; it's actually completely typical of it.

S: However, the research also suggests that there may be details of her memory that are not accurate because they may have been enhanced over the years. As she remembers it, more details that support the theme and the emotional content of the memory may have been mixed in. What I would say is, you know, I would totally believe that, maybe she remembers it as being worse than it was, because that's what tends to happen is these memories can get worse over time. That's actually--a lot of that is discussed in the literature on post-traumatic stress disorder, right? And the idea there is that PTSD--you know, people with PTSD can actually make their symptoms worse by remembering the event over time and, actually, the memory becomes more traumatic than the event itself because the memory gets enhanced and they need to try to work against that.

S: So, you know, I think that Ford's therapist would have probably a lot better idea of which of these processes were at work or, like, how plausible is it that, like, how much has she been dwelling on this over the years? How much has she had therapy where she's had to re-live it or recount it, or et cetera? That's always why contemporaneous accounts are always so valuable, because anything that locks in details at the time they happened, we know that they haven't drifted or enhanced over the--been enhanced over the years.

S: So, that could explain--you know, the other thing is people are trying to say, "Is it possible they're both telling the truth here?" Well, you know, I'm not gonna try to make those kind of judgments, and people are going to have strong feelings about this one way or the other. But is it possible that Kavanaugh did something that--I mean, it's hard to imagine that she didn't have a traumatic experience, right? And I think that some details like "Who was the person assaulting her" is something that she would remember. Right? So those are probably details that are accurate. But maybe it wasn't as bad as she remembers? Not to minimize what happened but, just in, in other words, it's possible that Kavanaugh's memory of it is like, "Oh, it wasn't that bad," and her memory of it was that it was really bad and the truth is somewhere in the middle. You know what I mean? He might have--his memory may have minimized it over the years, or may in fact not remember, although he vehemently denies ever blacking out. You know, that's a separate issue that, you know, that is being explored in the media, but, you know, if we're just saying "What are the possibilities here?" It's possible that he sort of whitewashed the memory over the years, or he just doesn't remember all of it or parts of it and it's possible that her memory's accurate; it's also possible her memory's been enhanced, and that may explain why they're far apart, right?

S: But, having said all that, there's no reason--the details of her memory give us no reason to be suspicious of her sincerity. Let me say that. You can't say, "Oh, if this were a real memory, she would not forget those details." That's wrong. That, we can say is flat-out wrong. Uh, remembering some details vividly and forgetting others is absolutely typical. But, obviously, there's a huge range of possibilities within what we know from research about the way memory works specifically for traumatic events. So, of course, within that wiggle room, you know, people could place themselves along the continuum wherever they want, in alignment with their partisan proclivities.

E: As a side note to all that, this has been a opportunity--I kind of hate to use that word--for people to learn more about memory overall, and a lot of misconceptions and--

S: Yeah, ideally, these events would be just that, Evan, opportunities to learn, you know, objectively, about things like memory and traumatic events, et cetera. But, unfortunately, I think people take their corners, you know. Our experience is that highly charged controversies are not a good time to teach people stuff because they're not really open to being taught; they're very defensive.

E: Yes, everyone's getting in their trenches.

S: Yeah, in general, we say it's better to engage people and teach them on topics that they're not emotional about because they'll be better able to learn and to understand and to process it. But they reason why I think it's important for us to talk about this is because we're not only teaching about memory in the abstract; we're trying to model how to respond to these controversial events, and I think that one way to do that is to try to back up; to try to be objective, and to be aware of your bias and your partisanship and your ideology and say, "Alright, I'm gonna sort of step out of it and not let that influence me and try to look objectively at what the evidence actually says and what the experts actually say, rather than just taking a side and, you know, making a lawyer's case for that side," which is what most people are doing. It's hard, though, it's hard.

E: Very hard.

S: But I think it's important to try. And, you know, again, I'm trying not to get political, but I to think that we need to, at times--

E: Too late!

S: Well, there are political implications of critical thinking, right? I think that being reasonable, rational, and critical thinking is especially important at times like this. And that means that there has to be a rational conversation to have in the middle where we find common ground. And when you go to the extremes and you justify that in whatever way you justify it, you know, even if it is justified, I think you have to make even all the more of an effort to say, "Okay, a reasonable person would be angry or defensive, or whatever in this situation, but I'm going to try to rise above it and maintain some kind of objective, you know, reasonableness" because, if we don't, then we lose our ability to function. You know, and I think that's--I've read a lot about this and I think the one common thread in discussion of this which I agree with is like the one thing--this is a muddy mess, but the one thing we can all agree on is how dysfunctional the whole process is.

J: Sure. Yeah.

E: I agree.

S: But I think that, how do we get out of it, then? How do you get out of the dysfunction? By just saying, "Okay, we gotta find some common ground in the middle," and facts are the common ground. Which is why this whole "post-fact" thing is so upsetting, because, without facts, we have no common ground, and then we can't--that's when the system is broken. We need to be able to at least agree on some kind of basic shared reality. Right? Otherwise, there is no common ground; there's no hope for any workable process.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

The biggest gift of science is teaching us how to free our mind. So stay skeptical, be curious, and ask questions. - Vince Ebert (German entertainer and science communicator)

Announcements ()[edit]

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at Send your questions to And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.



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