“Indelible in the Hippocampus”: Brain, Memory Take Center Stage on the Senate Floor

During the Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Senator Patrick Leahy asked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford a simple question: “What is the strongest memory you have?”

Ford’s response, demonstrating both her specific memories of the alleged event as well as the neurochemistry of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (a field in which she is — not coincidentally — an expert) was telling. “Indelible in the hippocampus,” she said, “is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.” She went on, acting both as trauma survivor and expert witness, to tell prosecutor Rachel Mitchell that the “etiology of anxiety and PTSD is multifactorial” — translation: the lasting effects of trauma are caused by many factors — while also explaining to Senator Dianne Feinstein that the neurotransmitter epinephrine can be blamed with having coded these indelible memories into her hippocampus.

Never mind coming forward and navigating our current partisan political climate. Her passing on her deep and intimate knowledge of brain chemistry and structure to the world at large, while sending all of us scurrying to our computers to google hippocampus, will be a gift that keeps on giving, increasing awareness of the hippocampus’ role in memory creation, which, in turn, might help us understand its fragility as we age.

So what exactly is the hippocampus? The hippocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped area in the limbic center of the brain, located in both temporal lobes. In it are stored all of the deep and lasting memories of our lifetimes. In other words, without the hippocampus, we are not us. We would exist solely in the here and now, with no clear memories of what made us who we are, no historical context of the paths we took to get here or the people we met along the way, including our friends and family members.

In fact, in cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, it is the hippocampus that takes the biggest hit and causes the most heartbreaking damage for both loved ones and friends alike, as the person with a shrinking hippocampus slowly loses their ability to recall not only their most important life memories but also the shape of their children’s faces. This is where Neurotrack comes in, as a way to thwart that decline in the functioning of the hippocampus, before it begins, through a combination of exercise, nutrition, stress reduction, and sleep, with some cognitive training thrown in for good measure.

Whatever happens in the saga of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh — as of this writing, a limited FBI investigation is underway — one of the unexpected benefits of her having come forward to tell her story to the Judiciary Committee will be to have taught us all about the little seahorses in our brains where such stories, however painful or beautiful, live.

Deborah Copaken
Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken, Head Writer at Neurotrack, is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book and Shutterbabe, among others. Her work appears regularly in The Atlantic as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and many others.