How Brain Science Can Help Explain Discrepancies in a Sexual Assault Survivor’s Story

This kind of misunderstanding of an individual’s experience of sexual assault is heartbreakingly common. A high school student’s report of sexual assault was viewed skeptically by an elected lawmaker, who stated on the public record that “some girls, they rape so easy.” More recently, a fan base made it clear that it did not believe a woman accusing a sports hero of rape, and that she was making the story up for attention.

Why are victims so often not believed? A large amount of this disbelief may be linked to the behavioral patterns of victims themselves, which can vary widely from case to case and often include behaviors of which the average police detective would be skeptical. To understand these patterns, it is helpful to look at how the brain and body respond to stress and trauma, such as that experienced during sexual violence.

A relatively new area of the literature on human response to trauma, particularly the trauma experienced during sexual violence, is that of “tonic immobility.” Defined as self-paralysis, or as the inability to move even when not forcibly restrained, tonic immobility has long been studied in non-human animals as the “freeze” response to extreme stress. Recently, it has been observed in the laboratory as a stress response in humans, as well. This finding explains the reaction of many victims of sexual violence, who report that they felt like they could not escape, even when no weapon was present.

Additionally, due to an entire cascade of hormonal changes, which includes oxytocin and opiates, associated with pain management, adrenaline, commonly associated with “fight or flight,” and cortisol, functional connectivity between different areas of the brain is affected. In particular, this situation affects pathways important for memory formation, which means that an individual can fail to correctly encode and store memories experienced during trauma. While an individual generally will remember the traumatic event itself (unless alcohol or drugs are present in the system), these memories will feel fragmented, and may take time to piece together in a way that makes narrative sense…

Overall, it is estimated that nearly one-third of all victims of sexual assault will develop PTSD at some point in their lives…

2 thoughts on “How Brain Science Can Help Explain Discrepancies in a Sexual Assault Survivor’s Story

    • Science also says that our brains are capable of neuroplasticity:

      “The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.”

      While it’s not the same as a cure, maybe it can give some people hope to know about the amazing things our brains can do.

      Liked by 1 person

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