Expert explains why the brain matters in sexual assault cases

By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsApril 14, 2016

Expert explains why the brain matters in sexual assault cases
Dr. Jim Hopper, left, talks with one of the attendees during a break from his lecture on the neurobiology of trauma April 7 at the Commons. Hosted by the 10th Mountain Division (LI) Sexual Harassment / Assault Response and Prevention Office, the conf... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (April 14, 2016) -- For more than 20 years, Dr. Jim Hopper, a clinical psychologist and independent consultant, has been studying the effects of trauma on the brain. Whether it's related to combat, child abuse or sexual assault, there are key brain circuitries during traumatic episodes that can provide insight into what a person has experienced.

This is important for leaders, first responders and victim advocates in the military to understand if they are to assist, appropriately and professionally, in sexual assault cases.

Hopper spoke about the neurobiology of trauma to hundreds of Fort Drum leaders and first responders April 7 at the Commons during Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Ultimately, he said it was important for them to become "trauma-informed" -- to understand the victim's experience and what it would be like on the receiving end of the assault.

"If we are going to respond in a trauma-informed way, we have to understand what that victim's experience was and then, in particular, what happened in that brief, horrible relationship of being sexually assaulted so we can counteract that in a way that doesn't shut them down or leave them not wanting to talk to somebody or quit the investigation," he said.

Key brain circuitries are vital to understanding what an assault victim experiences and how it affects fear, memory, habits and reflexes.

The brain on fear is an impaired prefrontal cortex, and even if a person doesn't admit to being afraid, the evidence of increased brain activity is there. It can explain why, in an emergency situation, a person forgets the number to call 911 or can't provide a home address for an ambulance.

"That's serious impairment," Hopper said. "That can kick in, within one or two seconds, a flood of chemicals into your prefrontal cortex that impairs your ability to think straight, reason things through and retrieve information."

A person's fear is often questioned in sexual assault cases because it is widely believed that the victim should immediately want to fight back. Hopper said the idea of "Fight or Flight" does not necessarily mesh with thousands of years of evolution.

"We evolved to 'freeze' first when the danger is detected, and then to flee if possible," he said. "Even fighting is just to buy us some time to flee."

Hopper said this doesn't apply to every situation -- like the "cornered animal syndrome" where fighting is the only option. Freezing is a survival tactic, he said, because it may draw the predator toward another moving target, but it also allows the victim time to assess the situation.

"In this freeze state, you're also ready to burst into action," he said. "Freeze is a state that evolution has selected to help us survive. It is the first thing that kicks in when danger is detected, and that is true of sexual assault as well. In almost all these cases, victims will tell you there was a moment when something didn't seem right, when they became afraid, and this is a really important moment in an assault."

Hopper said in consensual situations, a person does not normally go into a freeze state unless it's a response to a previous assault.

"These are really important moments to listen for in a victim's story," he said. "When fear kicks in, it also sends the episodic memory circuitry into super encoding mode for a little while, and people often have very vivid memories."

The brain encodes unique fear memory, such as the feeling of being held down, the sounds of traffic outside or the look in a person's eyes. This is different from conceptual information -- the layout of the room or duration of the assault -- that victims sometimes block out or forget entirely.

"It's a different pathway in the brain, and this has huge implications for investigators," Hopper said. "These are going to be different memories of what they were thinking, or what they smelled or heard at the time that can be an important part of the picture and potentially valuable evidence later to help the panel understand what was going on and how this wasn't a consensual experience."

Hopper said when fear kicks in, a person relies on habits and reflexes developed over years -- techniques like polite rejection ("I have to leave soon" or "My boyfriend will be angry").

"Pretty early on, they're learning these ways of saying 'no thank you.' We all have these habits that we fall back on when needed," Hopper said. "It's part of being human, but especially for women, they have socially developed this whole other level of dealing with this."

When it doesn't work, Hopper calls it the fear-habit paradox.

"What normally would work, these habits we developed, is no longer working, but that's all the brain has to go on, even when those habits are completely useless," he said. "They didn't have rigorous prevention and self-defense training on how to handle sexual assault. They have these habits on how to politely resist unwanted sexual advances, and that's it."

Hopper said sexual assault victims will later regret not being able to say more, and because they were in a fear state, their words are misinterpreted.

Another key moment Hopper said that occurs in most sexual assault cases is when the victim goes from a resistance to a defeat state. A terrified, defeated brain often results in a state of disassociation, when a person becomes disconnected from his or her body. This is an extreme defeat-related survival reflex, Hopper said.

"If someone is sitting across from you talking about being raped and it sounds like they're reading a grocery list because they're not feeling it in their body, and now you're not feeling it in your gut, it doesn't feel real, right? It doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't real," he said. "It might just mean this person was so traumatized that they disconnected from all the horrible things that happened to their body."

Is it plausible that a victim could feel sleepy during an attack, Hopper asked. The answer is "yes," and victim advocates should recognize it as a physiological effect of collapsed immobility. That happens when a person can't move or speak during trauma and experiences an extreme drop in heart rate and blood pressure that can cause faintness, sleepiness or loss of consciousness.

Hopper said it is important for everybody to understand the different responses to sexual assault, so the right questions are asked and that the victims feel safe telling their stories.

"Take this back to your units, use the information how it fits into your role, whether that's in SHARP, as a leader of Soldiers or just as a Soldier yourself," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Huffman, 10th Mountain Division (LI) sexual assault response coordinator.

For those who were unable to attend this event, a similar lecture Hopper presented last year at Tufts University is available on YouTube at

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