The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault

According to material published online by the United States Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), trauma has a huge impact on cognitive ability. During an assault, the neural mechanisms of rational and logical thought do not function normally. Neural pathways are flooded with hormones, inhibiting both rational decision-making and the encoding of memories. The flood of hormones can even, and often does, result in a complete shutdown of bodily function, a state referred to as "tonic immobility," but better described as paralysis. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 88 percent of survivors experience some variation of tonic immobility.



This body of research states that the neuromechanisms of the brain during an incident of trauma affect the aftermath of a sexual assault, as well. During an investigation, a survivor may show a range of emotions, from extreme sadness to apathy and everything in between. They also may exhibit fragmented memory recall due to the disorganized encoding that occurred during the incident. This means that details may be difficult or impossible to recall, and chronology may be completely lost.

For more information, watch the videos provided or view the presentation "The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault" by Rebecca Campbell from the National Institute of Justice.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, has granted Bowdoin College permission to reproduce, in part or in whole, the video “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this video are those of the speaker(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice or of Bowdoin College.