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brainIt is not uncommon for victims of sexual assault to have trouble recalling details of the assault(s).  Many people will claim that you must be lying if you can’t remember the “important” details, but actually only 2-8% of reports of assault are “fake”.  That means that 92-98% of all reported assaults really took place.

I participated in a training a few months ago about the neuroscience of the brain associated with sexual assault.  It was absolute validation that I wasn’t crazy and the fact that I couldn’t remember all the details of when I was assaulted was perfectly normal.  The fact that I can’t remember his last name, or what he was wearing isn’t unusual.  The fact that now, after all these years, I couldn’t tell you exactly what day it happened is perfectly normal.  The brain is wired to react differently when a person experiences trauma.  The part of the brain called the amygdala kicks in to help process fear sending a person into survival mode.  The amygdala sends an alert to the adrenal gland or hypothalamus which in turn releases hormones that are meant to help us cope with the physical and emotional pain associated with the traumatic experience.  The hippocampus is the part of your brain that allows you to think logically and remember small details such as what time was it, what were you wearing, what he might have said to you.  When the hormones are released, it interferes with the amygdala’s ability to communicate with the hippocampus properly.  This ultimately results in a fuzzy recollection of details or telling different stories.  Because of this victims are discredited or said to be making up the assault.  This further traumatizes a victim and many victims do not come forward for fear they will not be believed.  Now they have been victimized all over again.

I try to remember to make victims aware of what I’ve learned about the brain especially when preparing them for a trial or a preliminary exam.  I’m afraid that if I don’t, they may get frustrated when asked over and over when, where, why, and how.  They may feel like we don’t believe them.  I want them to know why they have trouble recalling these details.  I want them to know it’s ok to not remember everything.  I want them to feel safe and trusted.  There are certain details that will be very clear and others that are so hazy that no matter what you do, you just can’t remember.  In many cases when we have a victim who was assaulted multiple times, they can’t remember a single date or even day of the week.  We ask various questions about when the assault(s) occurred in order to help trigger a memory, such as Was it snowing outside?  Was it near a holiday or birthday?  Was it summer or winter?  These aren’t meant to badger or frustrate a victim, but instead meant to help them trigger that memory.  Sometimes the answer is still “I’m not sure” and that’s ok.  Sometimes as part of the brain’s way of defense, the memories are there but are blocked to avoid further emotional trauma.

It’s absolutely insane to me the way our brain and body works to help us, to protect us.  God has created such a complicated yet so obviously simple creation in human beings.  Our bodies are miracles and even though we have free will to make decisions that at times cause us or others pain, our brain and our nervous system are wired to protect us nonetheless.  It truly amazes me.

So for those of you who have experienced trauma be it sexual, physical, or emotional; and struggle with remembering the details, you are not alone.  There is nothing wrong with you.  It is normal not to recall all the memories.  There is science to prove it.