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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.
Traumatic Memories: Tools to Evaluate the Senate Testimony
Sexual Assault and the Brain blog
This is the same essay, “How Reliable Are the Memories of Sexual Assault Victims?” that I published on the Scientific American website just before the September 27, 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. If I had been permitted to provide my expert testimony at the hearing, these would have been my remarks. What I've written to educate the Senators and everyone else about traumatic memories – not just of sexual assault but of military combat and other traumas too – sheds light on the memories reported by Blasey Ford (and Kavanaugh to some extent), and of anyone who has experienced trauma.
The Effects of Sexual Assault on the Brain
Morning Edition: NPR
Audio and transcript of the 7-minute conversation I had with Morning Edition co-host Rachel Martin on September 28, 2018, the day after the Senate’s Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford hearing. We discussed how Dr. Blasey Ford alternated between reliving her trauma and analyzing it as a psychologist and trauma researcher; how such alternations between being flooded by traumatic emotional and sensory memories and pushing them away is normal for all of us; the consistency of Blasey Ford’s reported memories with what’s known about how (traumatic) memories are encoded, stored, and retrieved; how the hearing was extremely traumatic for Judge Kavanaugh as well; and how the hearing was structured and carried out in ways that prevented the Senators and the rest of the country from getting sufficient information about what happened in that suburban Maryland bedroom 36 years ago.
Sexual Assault and the Brain blog
On this blog hosted by Psychology Today, I share my latest thinking on how being attacked can alter thinking, behavior, and memory formation in the midst of sexual assaults – and some important implications for justice, healing, and prevention.
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.
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 & 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 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.