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How Trauma Changes the Way Our Brain Forms Memories

Fri, Jul 29, 2016

CBC News published an article about traumatic or deeply emotional experiences being encoded by a special neural pathway. Trauma prompts the brain which focuses on survival, not the peripheral details of the trauma. It's beneficial to our emotional well-being to remember the gist rather than every detail. However, it is a common tactic for lawyers to dial in on the minute details of a witness's testimony, pressing to expose any possible contradictions in various retellings of the same story and therefore, the theory goes, raise doubts about its truthfulness.

"By asking someone to repeat a story ...over and over again, essentially you start to see the story unravel," criminal defense lawyer Daniel Brown explained in an interview with CBC's Metro Morning last week.

Those who say they have lived through trauma, however, are sometimes unable to articulate a coherent narrative owing to the brain's tendency to zero-in on only the most essential elements of what happened. Advanced-imaging studies have shown that traumatic experiences cause two relatively tiny areas deep within the brain, called the amygdala, to kick into overdrive. When the amygdala ramp up, there is a cascade effect through the brain.

Elizabeth Kensinger, a cognitive neuroscientist at Boston College, studies how emotion plays into memory formation. Kensinger's research suggests that while extraneous details may be forgotten, the core components may be less susceptible to the various ways time can erode our recollections. "There's some really interesting evidence that emotional memories tend to be more durable."

Read full article at link above.


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