“(Survivors) often are not equipped to explain their own psychological responses and coping. They may not recognize the role of abuse-related trauma in the development of some of their own severe responses and ways of managing. What might appear as “inconsistencies” in the way a victim reacts or tells her story in a service context or a legal proceeding is actually very often a typical, predictable, and normal way of responding to life threatening events and coping with and remembering traumatic experiences.”
–(Haskell, L. Trauma-Informed Approaches to the Law, 523)
Understanding what happens in the brain of a woman who has survived trauma will help you to interview and support in a way that’s compassionate, non-judgemental, and effective. Survivor responses that are commonly mistaken for deception can be explained by the neurobiology of trauma.
Memory is a complex process with a variety of factors affecting how an experience is encoded, consolidated, and stored in our memory, along with information that provides context, such as time and place. In order to tell a story about what we have experienced we must recall the information and place this into a sequence which makes sense to us. A traumatic experience is like a collection of puzzle pieces that may not fit neatly together into a narrative for the survivor or her interviewer or service provider.
Often, professionals trying to understand the events surrounding trauma may focus their questions around sequences of events: What happened next? And after that? And after that? However, the woman might not be able to put her assault into a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. She may not remember some parts of the assault at all. This is a protective response, and one that can be better understood by considering that, during an assault, a woman’s brain chooses how to respond, and how to encode the memory of the assault.
When a woman is attacked, she goes into defense mode and her ability to control her attention is compromised. Her defense circuitry overrides her thinking brain and her survival instincts take over until the threat has subsided. While a woman is in defense mode, her brain may choose to focus on a seemingly insignificant detail as a mechanism of survival, while blocking out other details. The things a woman focuses on during an assault are central details. Anything else is a peripheral detail.
We can’t predict which details of an attack will be central and which will be peripheral. A woman who is being assaulted might focus on a lamp in a corner; a crack in the ceiling, or the number of ceiling tiles. Sometimes the woman won’t recall a notable feature of her attacker’s appearance – a large facial tattoo, for example, in one case– because her attention was elsewhere.
Within the context of a criminal investigation, asking what a survivor smelled, heard, saw, felt, and tasted may uncover new puzzle pieces of memories, especially if a survivor is not asked to think about details in a particular way (often linear) but asked to share further sensory details. Survivors may blame themselves for not being able to recall certain details, so reminding a woman her brain chose what to remember may be helpful.
Any clarifying questions should be left until the end of the interview or disclosure. You can ensure a space is comfortable by considering inclusive, accessible designs, and ensuring water and tissues are available.
A woman may recall the initial moments of an attack vividly yet have only fragmented memories of the rest of the attack. At the onset of an attack, the hippocampus goes into “overdrive,” encoding as much data as it can. After about thirty seconds, the hippocampus enters another mode where it aims to process information from those first thirty seconds. In the second mode, the hippocampus doesn’t have the resources it needs to encode sequences of events. Anything that gets encoded to memory later in the attack will likely be stored as a fragment or island of sensory detail– a sound or smell for example – that exists out of context. (Wilson, Lonsway, Archambault, 2016).
Fragments of memory may be triggered by any of the 5 senses: smell, touch, taste, sight, or sound.
Click on the purple labels below to learn more about these 5 senses and prompts that can be used to help a client ground themselves when sensory fragments rooted in traumatic experiences cause flashbacks and emotional dysregulation.
Scent, Trauma, and Age
Smells are powerful, quick-acting cues to our brains and bodies. Women who have survived trauma are often triggered by smells. Illness, injury and aging can change or compromise a woman’s sense of smell. Odors are one of the most potent reminders of past trauma and can play a key role in various forms of treatment (Cortese, et al. 2016), and in particular, exposure-based therapies (Morrison et al. 2015). It’s important to consider the impact of aging and trauma on olfactory senses; anosmia is the temporary or permanent loss of sense or smell, and can be caused by head trauma, neuro-degenerative diseases, brain tumors, as well as changes in mucus composition associated with aging.
Trauma survivors may be triggered by smells, for example, a woman who was often given roses by an abusive partner following sexual and physical assaults as part of an apology may experience flashbacks when she smells flowers, even decades after the violence has ended. This smell can cause her amygdala and hippocampus to set off a high alert alarm throughout her nervous system, increasing her heart rate and breathing as the smell of roses is now linked with fear of harm. As the conscious brain processes the stimuli, the subconscious awareness of danger now becomes the conscious emotion of fear (LeDoux, 2015).
Traumatic memories are often a puzzle which does not fit neatly together. After a high-speed chase resulting in a fatality, an officer who experienced secondary or vicarious trauma, may not recall how long the chase lasted or other key details. Islands of memory may be triggered by sensations, such as the smell of fresh cut grass, but the ability to track time and distinguish minutes from hours is impeded during times of extreme stress. Avoid asking a trauma survivor questions she is unable to answer, such as how long a specific part of an assaulted lasted, as this can increase her sense of shame, blame, and confusion, related to the experience.
Living with trauma – the memory or lack of memory of it, the physiological and psychological effects – can confuse, frustrate, and frighten a woman. It may be beneficial for you to explain parts of what you know about the neurobiology of trauma to a client. It might help her to feel less alone, less a stranger in her own body. If you do decide to share some of what you know, try to communicate simply and clearly. Check in often with the woman to see if she’s understanding what you’re telling her, and to make sure she wants the information you’re offering. Look at the interaction not as a lesson, but as an opportunity to connect.
How can you apply this information to your interviewing technique? Here are some guideposts:
Food for Thought: