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Why don't many people fight or yell when they're being raped?
Why are memories of sexual assault so often fragmentary and confusing?
Is the brain’s response to attack essentially the same – controlled by the defense/fear circuitry, running on reflexes and habits – during sexual assault, physical assault, and military combat?
The answers have big implications for people who've been sexually assaulted, for those who investigate and prosecute such crimes, and for everyone else who knows or works with someone who's been sexually assaulted.
These are issues that I address as a consultant and trainer, and here I provide answers via writings and videos, as well as handouts for professionals.
The answers, it turns out, are the same in every culture. Around the world, the most common responses of people during sexual assaults are basically the same.
Evolution sculpted them into our brains long before we were sophisticated enough to create cultures, long before we began to misunderstand and misjudge sexual assault survivors with culture-based expectations of how women and men “should” respond during assaults and remember them later.
In Most Sexual Assaults, "Defense Circuitry" Runs the Show
Psychology Today Blog
This blog post explains my shift, following top neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, from the (pre-2017) term “fear circuitry” to the new “defense circuitry.” It also makes some key points, which it’s helpful to summarize here: (1) No matter what you call it, there’s a circuitry that evolution put in our brains for responding to threats and attacks. (2) Even if new research overthrows some piece conventional neuroscientific wisdom (e.g., about the amygdala) there’s still such a circuitry in our brains, and that’s settled science. (3) We need not know the exact roles of each component of the circuitry to know that neuroscience has shown it massively shapes sexual assault victims’ attention, thinking, behaviors, and memories. (4) Knowing the basics of those defense circuitry effects greatly improves our abilities to understand and support sexual assault survivors, and to conduct effective and fair investigations, prosecutions, and other processes for achieving justice (e.g., restorative ones).
Why Many Rape Victims Don't Fight or Yell
Published by The Washington Post in June 2015, this brief essay explains basic brain responses to being attacked, including sexually. It also has links to key scientific review articles on the brain bases and evolutionary origins of commonly misunderstood effects of the defense/fear circuitry taking over: impairment of the prefrontal cortex, survival reflexes (e.g., freezing, tonic immobility) and ineffective habit behaviors.
Why Rape and Trauma Victims Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories
This brief essay, written with David Lisak and published on Time.com in 2014, explains how fear and trauma, including in the midst of a sexual assault, shape how memories are encoded, and thus how we should expect the memories to be later, when the victim is trying to recall what happened with investigators, school administrators, family and friends. Understanding these basics can be very helpful to everyone involved, including by decreasing victims' shame and self-doubt about fragmentary and incomplete memories. This copy includes more links to supporting review articles by top neuroscientists who study the impacts of stress on the prefrontal cortex and the neurobiology of memory.
Neurobiology of Trauma & Sexual Assault
In this in-depth YouTube video, I explain how the brain impacts of sexual assault shape victims’ experiences, behaviors, and memories, including with embedded videos that illustrate key effects (e.g., survival reflexes). It's a version of most my in-demand training that gets rave reviews from civilian and military police, attorneys and victim advocates, higher education administrators, etc. (I start talking about the brain at 9:10, but what comes before sets the stage and is important, especially because I clarify that empowering and connecting with victims does not mean being biased as an investigator, adjudicator, etc.).
Neurobiology of Sexual Assault: 2-Part Webinar Series
In these two 90-minute webinars, I talk viewers through the slides and videos in Part 1: Experience and Behavior, and Part 2: Experience and Memory. I cover the same material as my YouTube video but in greater depth, especially on memory issues. Presented in September 2016, these webinars are available for free in EVAWI’s webinar archive. (There is a quick and simple registration process, so EVAWI can track who is accessing the materials and report to their funding agency.) See also the "Neurobiology of Trauma" FAQ I wrote for EVAWI, below.
Neurobiology of Trauma FAQ
I wrote this FAQ to accompany the two-part webinar series on this topic (see above). It has answers to 16 common questions covering a variety of issues that are sometimes sources of confusion.
Handout for Victim Advocates
This provides options for answering sexual assault victims' common questions with brain-based explanations, which can increase understanding and reduce shame and self-blame. Before using this handout, watch my YouTube video, "Neurobiology of Trauma and Sexual Assault" (see above).
Handout for Interviewers
This provides detailed information for those conducting investigative interviews with people reporting sexual assault. It includes sections on brain-based effects on memories, fundamental interviewing principles, and techniques for improving interviews and the evidence collected. Before using this watch my YouTube video, "Neurobiology of Trauma and Sexual Assault" (see above).
For information about having me provide a presentation or training, see Professional Services or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and include "training" in the subject line.