Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Trauma Witness and Witness for the Prosecution

The preliminary hearing for the man accused of murdering Dr. George Tiller was held today. He was bound over for trial, to no one's surprise. The CNN coverage of the hearing quotes extensively from the testimony of two ushers who were at the Wichita, KS church where Tiller was also ushering when he was shot on May 31. Some language from their testimony stood out to me.

Gary Haup, who was standing with Tiller when he was shot, described what happened and then said that what he heard was a "pop."

Keith Martin, another usher, said that he heard a loud noise and saw Tiller on the floor. He said he recognized the man who shot him, but couldn't remember when. He also said that the man
had a horrible smell about him. ... It wasn't just somebody at the gym smell. It was something more, an ammonia-type smell.
He testified that the shooter threatened him as he chased him, and that he could see "straight down the barrel" of the man's gun.

These statements caught my eye because they are really vivid. Haup didn't hear "something" he heard a pop. The suspect didn't smell "bad" he had a very specific, unusual odor. And he didn't just see the gun, he "stared right down the barrel."

There are two things going on here. The first is that the prosecutor has almost certainly told these men to be as specific as possible with as much detail as they can remember. That's good prep work with witnesses.

The second thing that is going on here is that these witnesses are remembering vivid detail. That is what happens during traumatic events. When our bodies experience the "fight or flight" response with which we are all familiar, our brains flood with a neurotransmitter responsible for memory. All of our sensory exposure from that instant on is much more likely to be held in memory. We don't just remember what happened, we remember the sensory details. If you've ever been driving along and suddenly had to slam on the brakes because the car in front of you stopped short, you've seen this in action. You can't remember one thing from the second before it happened, but you can remember every little detail right afterward.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. Natural selection favored those animals who could react quickly when faced with a threat -- that's how the fight or flight response evolved in the first place. But it also favored those animals who could identify a threat quickly. In order to do that, they had to learn from their experiences what was dangerous and what wasn't, and how best to react. And in order to do that, they had to keep track of everything they saw, smelled, tasted, felt or heard when something bad happened. That way, when it happened again, they could run even sooner.

The bad news for modern humans is that having heightened senses to perceive danger is not actually all that useful in today's society. Unless you are being shot at with some frequency, remembering what a shooter smells like, for example, is not actually going to help you survive. But it is going to set you up for some troublesome associations, without you necessarily knowing it. The next time Mr. Martin smells someone with that odd ammonia odor, his body is going to shift directly into danger mode, even though he will probably not be in danger.

If this has ever happened to you -- being thrown into overdrive by a smell or a sound that you subconsciously associate with a dangerous or stressful situation -- you probably know that it can make you feel completely insane. The good news, however, is that a) it's typical and b) it usually goes away in a few months. You will still have associations with that sensory experience, but they won't be so complete and alarming.

The good news is also that, if you have to, you'll be one heck of a detailed court witness.

(For additional Quarterbacking on Dr. Tiller's Murder, see The Tiller Family's Critical Incident)


Colleen said...

If it doesn't go away, EMDR can make it behave. At last we have an effective treatment for that!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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