Sexual assault, trauma and the brain

Last weekend I went to the annual meeting for the Society for Pastoral Theology (SPT), where along with my colleague and friend Abigail Holland Conley, I presented a workshop on gender-based violence, narrative and healing.  During our workshop, we used interactive exercises to help participants to understand the barriers that survivors face when reporting or telling their story, and Dr. Conley discussed recent brain science research on trauma.  

A recent Slate article by Rebecca Ruiz highlights some of this research:

In the past decade, neurobiology has evolved to explain why victims respond in ways that make it seem like they could be lying, even when they’re not. Using imaging technology, scientists can identify which parts of the brain are activated when a person contemplates a traumatic memory such as sexual assault. The brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory—often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information. Victims can also experience tonic immobility—a sensation of being frozen in place—or a dissociative state. These types of withdrawal result from extreme fear yet often make it appear as if the victim did not resist the assault.

This is why, experts say, sexual assault victims often can’t give a linear account of an attack and instead focus on visceral sensory details like the smell of cologne or the sound of voices in the hallway. “That’s simply because their brain has encoded it in this fragmented way,” says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant who trains civilian and military law enforcement to understand victim and offender behavior.

As we discussed at SPT last week, understanding the effects of trauma on the brain and body is a vital first step for faith communities, law enforcement, university officials and others who interact with survivors of gender-based violence.  Learn more about some of this research on the neurobiology of sexual assault by listening in to Dr. Rebecca Campbell‘s 2012 presentation for the National Institute for Justice.