Updated: May 5
When a crime such as sexual assault or kidnapping is committed, a victim or witness typically places most of their focus on the moments that were most terrifying or traumatizing to them. The reason why some details are easy to recall, while others are difficult or totally impossible to remember might be due to fractures in the victim’s memory encoding at the time of the incident(s). Consequently, important facts surrounding the crime known as “peripheral details,” might remain scrambled in the victim’s mind or totally lost from their memory altogether.
Understanding trauma and the way that it affects a person’s memory, behavior, or perspective sounds complex, and you may think it requires you to have a medical degree. But surprisingly, trauma is something that most of us can relate to in some way.
With proper training and education, criminal justice professionals can respond to traumatized victims, witnesses, families, and communities in a way that embodies: (1) a deeper understanding of how trauma affects memory and behavior(s), (2) a trusting, empathetic, dignified, and secure process for engaging with victims, (3) procedures that limit victim re-traumatization and promotes the use of victim support services.
A trauma-informed response is the key to facilitating victim cooperation, which ultimately leads to effective investigations and accurate prosecutions.
In this article, we will discuss how a traumatic event can impact a victim’s or witnesses’ short and long-term memory and behavioral responses. Our intent is to provide you with a deeper understanding of why a victim may not respond in a way that you would expect in the aftermath of a sexual assault, or how it’s possible for the victim of a
burglary to remember a perpetrator’s entire facial structure - but forget where they were and what they were doing just hours before they were victimized.
What is a traumatic event?
A person can experience a traumatic event in several ways: (1) by directly experiencing the event (e.g. being the victim of an attempted homicide), (2) by witnessing the event in person as it occurred to others, and (3) by learning that the event involved a close relative, friend, or partner, and/or (4) by experiencing ongoing and repeated aspects of a traumatic event (such as repeated acts of domestic violence).
When a victim or witness experiences a traumatic event(s), they might have feelings of fear, horror, shock, and powerlessness occurring all at once. This might cause a significant deal of internal stress that has mild to severe effects on the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, these areas are also responsible for memory encoding, however when shifted into overdrive, their memory functions become impaired as they prepare the body for danger through the release of four key hormones - catecholamines, cortisol, opiates, and oxytocin.
Depending on a person’s age, race, genetics, socio-economic status, prior military service, prior victimization, and a range of other factors - the victim’s body may release a significant amount of these hormones or very little at all.
As a result, not all victims experience trauma in the aftermath of a violent crime; in fact two victims may experience the same crime and have entirely different emotional responses. For example, a victim of a sexual assault and a close family member who did not witness the crime can both experience the same amount of trauma. While in contrast, a witness of a bank robbery may experience trauma and PTSD symptoms, and another victim who was directly assaulted during the same bank robbery may experience no trauma during or after the event.
Further, because the functionality of the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hypothalamus are all affected by the release of this hormone combination, processing and encoding memories becomes substantially harder to do at the time of a traumatic event. Thus, the victim's memory of the crime may not be in chronological order, and they may exhibit behavior that one typically does not associate with victimization (e.g. seeming detached or unemotional, or comfortable while discussing the crime).
How does the body respond to a traumatic experience?
Catecholamines are hormones in our body that promote a fight or flight response - that is to stay and defend the body, or run away to safety. This hormone might create a freeze response that is prevalent in the animal kingdom as a mammalian instinct to act as if you are dead in order to survive. Catecholamines can also result in tonic immobility, which is known as “rape induced paralysis”, rendering a victim immobile.
Cortisol is the hormone that affects the amount of energy that a human being has available to fight or flee from a dangerous situation. During a distressing event, adrenaline increases significantly and cortisol is released in larger quantities to provide the victim with the extra energy required to respond to the dangerous situation.
Opiates are hormones that naturally reduce the body’s physical pain, similar to that of morphine. It is intended to prepare the body to endure higher amounts of pain in order to defend itself.
Oxytocin is the hormone in the body that reduces emotional pain and promotes positive feelings in the body. Although it is known to be the “feel good” hormone, studies show that oxytocin is also essential for strengthening the memory of negative social interactions and increases fear and anxiety in future stressful situations.
Takeaways: How does this affect a victim or witness?
1. Since opiates are intended to be the body’s natural pain reliever, the victim or witness may appear flat or seemingly unemotional in the aftermath of the crime.
Picture a person who has had a physical injury and is given morphine by their doctor to cope with the pain. This person may appear to be in no pain due to the morphine; nevertheless, their injury still exists and the pain will likely re-emerge once the morphine wares off.
The body’s release of natural opiates may cause a flat effect which might make the victim seem emotionless, cold, detached, or even in disbelief that the event occurred. This does not indicate that they are lying or are unaffected by the situation.
The victim's body may have released a significant amount of opiates and simply needs time to allow them to wear off naturally, and this may take one to three sleep cycles.
Keep in mind, if your victim is highly traumatized it is possible that they may not be able to sleep for an entire sleep cycle, which may mean they will need more time to recover.
2. The amygdala’s ability to encode and consolidate memories becomes impaired by adrenaline, making it difficult for the brain to code information in a sequential order.
A victim’s prior physiological response to a traumatic experience may make them seem like they “cannot get their story straight.” In reality, they cannot get the memories in chronological order.
The victim may also only be able to recall certain aspects of the event because these were the moments that may have been most traumatizing or fearful for them.
4. Over a period of time, the victim's body may struggle with regulation of cortisol which affects the amount of energy they may have available. It may also cause disruption of sleep cycles which further hinders their memory consolidation capacity.
5. During and after a traumatic experience, the brain’s amygdala can be shifted into overdrive, which makes a person significantly more attuned to potential threats in their physical surrounding. It also causes strong emotional reactions to certain people or situations – these are known as triggers.
Triggers can be anything, including: a smell, sound, voice recording, picture, or a question. They bring back memories or emotions associated with a traumatic event. Such memories can be highly intrusive and extremely painful because it forces the person into re-experiencing the crime or trauma all over again. It is even possible for their body to have corresponding physiological responses, such as a racing heartbeat, bodily shaking, crying, etc.
When there is a trigger, the victim may seem paranoid and mistrustful, causing them to shut down. Be aware of their need to feel safe, and if they seem upset or afraid, offer them the opportunity to take a break.
Consider alternative locations for interviewing that promote feelings of neutrality and trust (meet the victim at a location where they feel safe).
In sum, experiences like sexual victimization or childhood abuse are highly traumatic and fractured memories of these painful events can hide subconsciously within the brain. With trauma-informed investigative approaches, psychological support, and rehabilitation, victims can heal from the psychological outcomes and support law enforcement efforts. Trauma-informed policing can also promote victim safety which in turn will encourage more victims to trust and cooperate with law enforcement throughout the criminal justice process.
NCVC’s training and technical assistance team is happy to provide your team with more information on our in-person and virtual training's, workshops, and related events on trauma, victimization, and crime reduction. Click here to see our current training areas, and click here to send us a message.
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