Why Do Survivors Forget?

My name is Dr. Colleen Cira and I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who specializes in Women and Trauma, so I’ve worked with hundreds of people struggling with sexual trauma.

Interview Dr.Colleen Cira

  • Due to the Brett Kavanaugh Hearings and Dr. Ford’s incredibly brave and credible account of her sexual assault that also included some memory gaps, much has been said about whether a survivor can be telling the truth when there is so much that she can’t remember.  The answer is a emphatic and resounding YES. Here’s the scientific reason why:

  • When someone is in the middle of a threatening situation, the brain responds as though it is life or death, whether that is true of the actual situation or not.  This is the parasympathetic nervous system kicking in, which prepares our bodies for a threat by increasing our heart rate and redirecting blood flow.

  • And when someone is in the middle of a dangerous situation, that means that certain bodily functions, like digestion for instance, just aren’t needed because what’s FAR more important in that moment is the ability to run or fight.  So cortisol and adrenaline get pumped into our bloodstream so that we can do whatever is necessary to survive.

  • Here’s the interesting thing about cortisol – it suppresses the functioning of our hippocampus, which is a structure in our brain that is partly responsible for memory.  Let me repeat that: part of our body’s alarm system to keep us safe involves decreased memory function. But stay with me though because this next part is really important…

  • You might be saying to yourself, well then how can a survivor know who assaulted her if her memory is impaired during the attack??  Fair question. Here’s how: Because there’s another hugely significant brain structure at play during a dangerous situation and that’s the amygdala.

  • The amygdala is responsible for primal emotions, mainly fear and rage.  So during a dangerous situation, the amygdala is firing on all cylinders.  And when it comes to the brain, what fires together, wires together. This means that when the survivor is being attacked and her amygdala is going crazy, her perpetrators face and other sensory aspects of the the assault (his cologne, how his facial hair felt on her skin, etc), gets SEARED into her memory.  This is the stuff that nightmares are made of folks, quite literally, and she can’t forget that stuff no matter how hard she tries. She is totally unable to forget those things because they were the source of primal, intense fear. Those are the things that made her brain think this might be a life threatening situation so those are the things that she’ll NEVER forget.

  • But details that don’t matter to her survival – details that don’t trigger the amygdala and an intense, primal fear response – they don’t get encoded into the memory because…who cares?  Who cares what time it is, or what day it is or even what year it is when you’re just trying to survive?? Those things don’t trigger fear – those things are inconsequential – so they don’t get remembered.  See the difference?

  • In fact that part of her brain that is good at categorizing and organizing events – that puts a date and time stamp on most memories – isn’t working in a dangerous situation.  The frontal lobe, the part of our brain that makes us human, is totally offline when someone is being attacked and the amygdala is running the show. And conversely, the amygdala CANNOT timestamp anything. The amygdala is all emotions.

  • So again, the only things that get remembered in a dangerous situation are the life threatening details.  This is why when a weapon is used in a crime, it’s typically one of the only memories that feel clear about that attack.  But when a person is the weapon, that person’s face gets remembered in a crystal clear way.


Dr. Colleen D. Cira, Psy.D. received both her Masters and Doctorate from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology and has been practicing in the field since 2001. Dr. Cira is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Founder and Executive Director of Cira Center for Behavioral Health, PC a boutique group practice with locations in Chicago and Oak Park that specializes in Women’s Issues/Health and Trauma. Dr. Cira is a trauma and anxiety expert, clinical supervisor, writer, speaker, consultant, activist, wife and Mommy to two little ones.


Dr. Cira’s Profile on Media Ambassadors: https://www.mediaambassadors.com/dr-colleen-cira

Dr. Cira’s Practice Website: www.ciracenter.org


Jo Allison
Success In Media

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