SCIENCE
12/10/2014 08:47 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

What Sexual Assault Does To The Brain

Simone Becchetti via Getty Images

The unraveling of Rolling Stone's recent blockbuster feature on campus sexual assault has led to a great deal of hand-wringing over the way the media covers these crimes.

The magazine's story centers around "Jackie," who described being subject to a horrific gang rape while a freshman at the University of Virginia. Independent reporting found fault in Rolling Stone's coverage, primarily surrounding some discrepancies between Jackie's account in the magazine and the memories of those who had been around her at the time of the attack.

Based on these discrepancies, some have called the story a hoax, or at least untrue. In response, activists were immediately concerned that the bad press would reinforce the prevailing tendency to doubt sexual assault victims, an estimated 92-98 percent of whom are telling the truth. But actually, the argument that Jackie's account is fake based on fuzzy detail recall isn't just unlikely -- it's scientifically unsound.

Though we may never know what happened in this particular case, it's not uncommon for trauma survivors to have very fragmented recollections and difficulty with details, according to psychologist Dr. David Lisak, a forensic consultant and sexual abuse expert. This can sometimes lead to an incorrect retelling of the story.

"That's what's so important to understand -- that this is a very normal thing for a victim of a traumatic experience," he told The Huffington Post. The victim is trying to make coherence out of an incredibly disorganized set of pieces -- in almost all cases, the intention is not to deceive but rather to make sense of what they've processed, he added.

To understand the mechanics of how memories can become faulty, it's important to understand the way the brain is wired to respond to trauma. The intense fear that comes from experiencing a traumatic event suggests to a victim's body that she is experiencing a threat to her survival, activating the amygdala -- an area of the reptilian brain involved in both fear processing and stress response. When the amygdala starts sending out alerts, we go into survival mode, putting the brain and body on high alert.

In response to the amygdala's alerts, the adrenal glands, which are chiefly involved in stress response, secrete a flood of opioid-boosting hormones. These hormones, as well as the stress hormone cortisol, are meant to help the individual to cope with the physical and emotional pain of the traumatic situation.

On the one hand, we're hard-wired to try to remember a traumatic event. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: we need to live through the trauma, and then be able to communicate the threat to others. But the hormones we release can make it more difficult for the amygdala to work together with the hippocampus to encode and consolidate information, disrupting the victim's remembering of the event, according to Rebecca Campbell, a community psychologist at Michigan State University who has lectured widely on the neurobiology of sexual assault.

"The brain is trying to lay down a memory of the trauma," Campbell explained to The Huffington Post. "The problem is that those hormones... interfere with the brain's capacity to lay down a picture perfect representation of the trauma."

What's more, when a person is in this state of high stress, it's natural to focus her attention on the most immediate aspect of the threat -- at the expense of other details. A victim may have a clear memory of certain details (for example, the assailant's tee shirt), and a hazy recollection of other aspects of the experience, like where it took place and when.

There are more complications to proper recall: "We may become hyper focused on what we perceive to be the threatening stimuli," said Lisak. "Very often when we become focused on that, we lose attention to everything else. So the peripheral details really fade away in terms of our attention. That has an impact on what we recall after the fact."

Campbell draws an analogy to listening to a college lecture with only mini post-it notes to write on. You have these little, separate pieces of information that you've tried to take down, and the end of the lecture, the notes fall on the ground and get scattered.

"It doesn't come together and store in a nice, neat complete package," said Campbell.

But often, victims are questioned or discredited for precisely this reason. Although the neuroscience of sexual assault tells us a great deal about the tendency of trauma to fragment memory -- and provides insights into how to effectively investigate and provide support for victims, law enforcement and campus officials rarely take these facts into consideration, according to Campbell.

Lacking an awareness of how memory works in trauma victims, law enforcement -- and sometimes also friends, family and campus officials, Campbell added -- unwittingly contribute to "secondary victimization." This occurs when victims disclose and seek help for a sexual assault, and then feel victimized again because of the way they're treated.

"[Victims] are put through the wringer of having their credibility questioned, their integrity questioned, their behavior questioned," said Campbell, "so that they are the focus of the investigation rather than the offender's behavior."

Campbell and Lisak highlight the need for greater awareness and education on how traumatic memory works, and the necessity of taking this information into consideration in victim questioning procedures -- in examination rooms, on college campuses or, in this particularly unlucky case, the public court of national media.

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