This article is by Aldis Petriceks of Harvard Medical School, Erin Shortell of Harvard Law School, and Dr. Francis X. Shen, JD, PhD. Executive Director, Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior; Instructor in Psychology, Harvard Medical School; Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience, Harvard Law School Petrie-Flom Center.

The success of an asylum claim relies, to a large degree, on the perceived credibility of an asylum seeker’s memory. The Real ID Act of 2005 states that “[t]he testimony of the applicant may be sufficient to sustain the applicant’s burden without corroboration, but only if the applicant satisfies the trier of fact that the applicant’s testimony is credible, is persuasive, and refers to specific facts sufficient to demonstrate that the applicant is a refugee” (emphasis added). Asylum officers and immigration judges are told, in a sense, to act as mind readers, subjectively deciding whether or not to believe the narratives of asylum seekers.

But how do judges and asylum officers assess credibility? Additional evidence, such as physical signs of abuse or country-level evidence of systematic torture, can bolster credibility in this context. But such evidence may not be available, and even if it is, credibility assessments still turn on asylum adjudicators’ subjective perceptions of asylum seekers’ memories.

Credibility determinations thus often rest on the consistency (or lack thereof) in an asylum seeker’s story. The REAL ID Act provides that “ … a trier of fact may base a credibility determination on … the consistency between the applicant’s or witness’s written and oral statements … , the internal consistency of each such statement, the consistency of such statements with other evidence of record … , and any inaccuracies or falsehoods in such statements, without regard to whether an inconsistency, inaccuracy, or falsehood goes to the heart of the applicant’s claim, or any other relevant factor.”

Asylum applicants will often recount their stories at multiple points in the legal journey, including immediately upon entry into the U.S.; in a subsequent written affidavit; and before an asylum officer or immigration judge. If inconsistencies or inaccuracies emerge, the asylum adjudicator often infers that the asylum seeker intends to deliberately mislead him or her.

There is, of course, a logic to this inference. If the story changes, one might reasonably infer that the storyteller is purposely crafting a narrative more favorable to a preferred legal outcome.

Intuition is important, but decades of research into the neuroscience of memory suggest that such intuitions need to be carefully examined. Research conclusively shows that memory is not a digital recording of our lives, and thus changes in asylum seekers’ narratives over time may not be due to deliberate deception but rather to the nature of human memory itself.

Autobiographical memories are not accessed as one might re-watch a scene from a movie. Rather, memories are "dynamically reconstructed mental representations," and they change every time they are retrieved and recounted.

Memory scientists typically talk about three phases of a memory: Encoding (when the sensory systems first register the sights, sounds, smells and more of an event); storage (when that memory gets tucked away in the brain for later use); and retrieval (when the memory is consciously recalled). Context affects each of these stages. Of great relevance to asylum seekers’ credibility is the well-known finding that trauma and stress affect how memories are initially encoded, whether and how they are stored, and how we consciously recall them.

The bottom line for credibility is that inconsistencies in autobiographical recall may not reflect a willful attempt to bend the truth, but rather the biological reality that recalling memories usually involves modification of those memories in ways of which most people are not fully aware.

Do asylum adjudicators take notice of this neuroscience? In theory, they could. The Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate ("RAIO") Manual for Officer Training tells officers that it is “[their] job to determine whether those inconsistencies and/or contradictions are due to a lack of credibility or may be explained by other factors.” One of these “other factors” is the basic neurobiology of trauma and memory. But in practice, it is difficult to gauge the extent to which asylum officers abide by this instruction.

What would it mean for asylum adjudicators to better understand the relationship between memory, narrative inconsistency, credibility, and the human brain? To begin, it would entail the realization that many asylum seekers have endured tremendous trauma, and that this trauma often has documented effects on memory. Asylum seekers who have experienced trauma in their home countries, on the way to the U.S., or upon entry into the U.S., are often burdened by these effects. Brain scan research on individuals with PTSD, for instance, finds decreased activity in the brain networks associated with autobiographical memory, and an associated decrease in specific autobiographical recall. Given the prevalence of PTSD among asylum seekers, it is likely that many otherwise credible refugees will fail to describe their journeys, fears, and traumas in a detailed, coherent manner across multiple interviews. This failure, however, does not necessarily indicate a lack of credibility.

Acute stress often interferes with autobiographical memory. People perform more poorly on memory tests after injections of hydrocortisone, a compound which mimics the effects of cortisol on the body. When faced with significant trauma, children often recount memories in a vaguer, less detailed manner, regardless of the presence or extent of primary psychological conditions.

It remains unknown exactly how trauma and memory are related in the brain. Some researchers believe that trauma leads to an over-general mode of autobiographical memory largely because the exclusion of detail might prevent re-traumatization. Others argue that trauma directly alters the activity of certain neurological networks, changing one’s ability to retrieve and recall specific memories. Regardless of the particular theory embraced, however, there is general agreement that people with histories of trauma have more altered capacities to remember specific details of events in their lives, and that those alterations are at least associated with measurable changes in neurological structure, function, and physiology.

So far, this neuroscientific knowledge has not been widely introduced to asylum officers or immigration judges. When these adjudicators determine that an applicant is not credible, “they overwhelmingly rely on inconsistencies within or among the various versions of the applicant’s story.” Can this gap between scientific understanding of memory and legal practice be bridged? At the MGH Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior, we think the answer is yes—with sustained effort and input from multiple disciplines.

Three areas are ripe for exploration. First, attorneys and judges need an improved understanding of how autobiographical memory works. To be sure, memory neuroscience cannot provide an asylum officer or immigration judge with an individualized “credibility detector.” But neuroscience can provide evidence for re-examining default presumptions that tend to equate inconsistency with deliberate falsehood.

Second, scientific articles standing alone are not sufficient to inform legal doctrine and practice. Actionable neuroscience requires the development of materials that can be readily adapted by lawyers to put forth arguments related to neuroscience, memory, trauma, and credibility.

Third, extended dialogue is required to explore both the promise and pitfalls of introducing neuroscience into asylum case law. For instance, might neuroscience memory research allow government lawyers to challenge otherwise consistent recollections? Just as a criminal defense attorney might call a “false memory” expert to aid his or her client’s defense, could similar arguments be made in the asylum context to undercut genuine claims of persecution? These and other concerns must be adequately addressed as part of an on-going law and neuroscience dialogue.

As with any new endeavor, the path for neuroscience and law in asylum cases is not clear. But there is much promise, and we hope there will be much more dialogue in the future.

About the MGH Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior: The Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior works at the vanguard of applied neuroscience, making neuroscience actionable for the legal community in order to ensure just and positive outcomes for all those affected by the law. Though the brain and the law are both complex, our work is quite simple: helping judges, lawyers, case workers, enforcement agents and many other actors across the legal ecosystem determine the right solutions for the right people and cases. We promote and enable the sound application of accurate neuroscience to critical areas of the legal process: criminal trials and sentencing, juvenile justice, elder protection and immigration enforcement and asylum. For more, see clbb.org.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com