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The Bad Science Behind Campus Response to Sexual Assaults

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by: Ryan Scott • September 8, 2017 • no comments

Great article by Emily Yoffe can be found here.

Key quotes:

In meeting this federal demand, some schools have come to rely on the work of a small band of self-styled experts in the neurobiology of trauma who claim that sexual violations provoke a disabling, multifaceted physiological response. Being assaulted is traumatic, and no one should expect those who have been assaulted to have perfect recall or behave perfectly rationally, but this argument goes much further. It generally goes like this: People facing sexual assault become terrified, triggering a potent cascade of neurotransmitters and stress hormones.This chemical flood impairs the prefrontal cortex of the brain, impeding victims’ capacity for rational thought, and interferes with their memory. They may have significant trouble recalling their assault or describing it coherently or chronologically. The fear of imminent death may further elicit an extended catatonic state known as “tonic immobility,” rendering them powerless to speak or move—they feel “frozen.”
As a result, those adjudicating sexual-assault allegations are told, the absence of verbal or physical resistance, the inability to recall crucial parts of an alleged assault, a changing story—none of these factors should raise questions or doubt about a claim. Indeed, all of these behaviors can be considered evidence that an assault occurred.

But . . .

I talked with Richard McNally, a psychology professor at Harvard and one of the country’s leading experts on the effects of trauma on memory, about the assertions Campbell made in her presentation. He first said that because assaults do not occur within the laboratory, “there is no direct evidence” of any precise or particular cascade of physiological effects during one, “nor is there going to be.” But there is plenty of evidence about how highly stressful experiences affect memory, and much of it directly contradicts Campbell. In his 2003 book, Remembering Trauma, McNally writes, “Neuroscience research does not support [the] claim that high levels of stress hormones impair memory for traumatic experience.” In fact, it’s almost the opposite: “Extreme stress enhances memory for the central aspects of an overwhelming emotional experience.” There is likely an evolutionary reason for that, McNally said: “It makes sense for natural selection to favor the memory of trauma. If you remember life threatening situations, you’re more likely to avoid them.” Notably, survivors of recent horrific events—the Aurora movie-theater massacre, the San Bernardino terror attack, the Orlando-nightclub mass murder—have at trial or in interviews given narrative accounts of their ordeals that are chronological, coherent, detailed, and lucid.