Memory recall during traumatic experiences is imperfect

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DENVER -- As more accusations against Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh are learned, many people are wondering how reliable are memories from drunken nights decades ago.

“Memory is imperfect,” said Kim Gorgens, a clinical professor at the University of Denver who is in the graduate school of professional psychology.

She said during a traumatic experience, the central nervous system is aroused.

The most distressing moments can become seared in brains in a way that contextual information is not.

“People may have a really vivid recall of what they could smell or see, or tactile memories of that time, what they may have been thinking, the sense of powerlessness or fear in that moment," she said.

"People will have a less vivid recall for all the things going around them, so where they were, why they were there, who else may have been there at the time.

“So when people retell those stories about traumatic events, it can sound disjointed and fragmented. It doesn't make it any less factual.”

That can hold true, she says, even if people have been drinking.

“In the absence of a complete blackout, our memory is pretty robust, especially during traumatic events,” she said.

Still, many claims of sexual assault are questioned, and only 10 percent of victims ever report.

The hashtag #whyIdidntreport is trending on Twitter, with many listing reasons such as feeling ashamed or humiliated, wanting life to get back to normal or a fear they wouldn’t be believed.

“When victims come forward, there's a lot of scrutiny placed on them, oftentimes their behavior, their clothing, all of that is questioned," said Brie Franklin, the executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Resources are available for anyone who is a victim of sexual assault and needs help.

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