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How Trauma Impairs Brain FunctionTrauma can actually alter the function of your brain during the stressful event and result in lasting changes in certain brain regions. These changes can impair cognitive function and memory encoding and recall at the moment and in the future. Recent neuroscientific findings in this area have real implications for the victims of crime and the legal system. The science of epigenetics is even showing that the effects of trauma can be passed down through genes to future generations.

Your Thinking Brain Shuts Down

At any given moment, the prefrontal cortex of your brain is primarily in charge of conscious thought and behavior. This is the area of higher level brain function allowing you to focus attention, think rationally, and inhibit impulses. In states of extreme stress, fear, or terror, your prefrontal cortex becomes impaired. A surge of stress chemicals basically shuts it down.

One study, “Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function”, explains it like this:

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the most evolved brain region – subserves our highest-order cognitive abilities. However, it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites… insults that disinhibit stress signalling pathways can lead to symptoms of profound prefrontal cortical dysfunction in mental illness.”

You probably can recall a time when you were in an emergency situation, one that necessitated a clear head. Just when you needed it the most, you most likely found that your thinking brain was completely unavailable. When the executive center of your brain goes offline, you are less able to direct your attention, make any kind of sense of what is happening before you, and less able to store the memories or recall the experience in an orderly way.

Fear Takes Over Your Brain

At some point during a traumatic event, fear kicks in and your amygdala starts running the show. Your amygdala are small almond-shaped masses (there are two of them) located deep in the temporal lobe of your brain. The amygdala is an ancient limbic system structure primarily responsible for processing memory, decision-making, motivation, and emotional reactions – most significantly, those related to survival. You have your amygdala to blame and thank for primal emotions, such as fear, anger, and pleasure.

The amygdala acts as your brain’s threat radar. When the amygdala sounds the alarm, your body responds with an almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes preparing you to fight for your life or flee. When this happens, most of your physical and mental resources get allocated to making sure you survive.

Once your fear circuitry takes over, it determines where your attention goes. You could zero in on the imminent threat or it could direct your attention completely away from the threat. In this case, you might end up focusing on seemingly trivial details. Either way, what gets processed by your brain tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the pertinent elements of the unfolding experience. What gets your attention is what is going to be encoded into memory.

Trauma Impairs Memory

Activation of your brain’s fear circuitry also impairs the functioning of the hippocampus and memory storage. The hippocampus encodes experiences into short-term memory and later can process them as long-term memories. Fear interferes with the ability of the hippocampus to encode and store “contextual information,” like the various details of an experience. Fear also causes time sequencing of encoded information to be altered. This means that you may not remember events happening in the actual order in which they occurred.

Research shows that the amygdala plays a crucial role in the formation and storage of emotional memories, resulting in what is known as “emotional learning.” While both positive and negative emotional memory storage may be facilitated by the amygdala, studies confirm that it puts special emphasis on threats, which results in “fear conditioning.

Recent studies suggest that the hippocampus goes into a super-encoding state briefly right before and after fear kicks in. For example, somebody may remember every little detail about what happened right before and after a traumatic event including contextual details and the exact sequence of events. However, they may have very fragmented and incomplete memories of the actual happening.

Real-Life Implications

Neuroscientific research is shedding light on a new understanding of how brain function is altered in traumatic situations. This new information has far-reaching implications for the legal system. For example, discrepancies in a victim’s story, should not be interpreted as lies, but as their brain’s response to extreme trauma.

The article, Why Rape and Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories,  furthers the point:

These advances in our understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain have enormous implications for the criminal justice system. It is not reasonable to expect a trauma survivor – whether a rape victim, a police officer or a soldier – to recall traumatic events the way they would recall their wedding day. They will remember some aspects of the experience in exquisitely painful detail. Indeed, they may spend decades trying to forget them. They will remember other aspects not at all, or only in jumbled and confused fragments. Such is the nature of terrifying experiences, and it is a nature that we cannot ignore.”

Here’s a really good video depicting Trauma and the Brain:

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  1. Interesting, Debbie to understand how trauma affects memory. The effects of trauma on the brain I feel have been underestimated. I like how the film mentions that people are affected by trauma in different ways and each day may be different as well. Being affected by trauma can have negative habits and consequences which are then another problem to overcome. Thank you for the informative article!

    • Yes, Cathy. Often, trauma results in coping behaviors, like drug addiction, which is then a whole different set of problems. It’s a vicious cycle.

  2. I know my brain is impacted by trauma in so many ways. It helps to read the scientific explanations. This struck me in particular: “When the executive center of your brain goes offline, you are less able to direct your attention, make any kind of sense of what is happening before you, and less able to store the memories or recall the experience in an orderly way.” I know in certain stress situations, I have a hard time grasping what is actually happening. This may be why. Thank you for this, Debbie.

    • I have experienced this too, Sandra. It makes me feel for all the trauma victims who have the authenticity of their stories questioned. Hopefully, things are changing.

  3. Interesting article Debbie. I too think trauma affects individuals differently…in fact I’ve seen it in my own family.

  4. Working in the behavioral health world, it’s good to know that “trauma-informed care” is becoming the norm. Because of all the things you’ve written here, it’s impossible for the same traumatic event to be recalled in the same way by two people who experienced it. Because of that, the two people can’t be treated by professionals in exactly the same way.

    It’s interesting to learn why my “smart brain” disappears in the midst of a very stressful event.

    • Not only do people experience the same event in different ways, but I find it interesting and important that no two people experience trauma the same. What is traumatic to one might not be to another. And, it does not have to be what is typically defined as “traumatic.” Hopefully, professionals are becoming more sensitive to this fact as well.

  5. While I knew of the emotional changes trauma can have, this chemical change that can be lasting is an interesting twist. Thank you for sharing this new info! Very helpful.

  6. Thank you for the article. I had a wreck, coma, tbi in 1997. I have gone through several programs and communities for help and treatment. I have had several ‘blows’ to the head since child birth. Obviously many things changed but I only thought it was having no short term memory but I developed epilepsy. To this day, 22 years later, I have improved slightly.

    I have many false positives. I believe things that happened didn’t and things that didn’t happen did. I whole heatedly believe these. I have gone through three programs for the since. Sometimes I have trouble even recalling my pets name.

    I’m disappointed, sad actually, that here isn’t much treatmen, understanding, not living communities that are more knowledgeable about this. On the bright side, I will never have to be a witness in court.

    • I’m sorry to hear of your challenges, Steve. I would encourage you to seek out neurofeedback – there are many different modalities available now and/or hyperbaric oxygen therapy. You can find information about both on this website and on the internet. The brain has amazing healing capabilities – even decades later – given the right support and encouragement. All the best to you.

  7. What are some kinds of therapy and treatments to heal brain trauma is it similar to ptsd therapy or is there a biological aspect to treatment ?

  8. Thanks so much for this concise, accessible overview, Debbie. I’m a criminologist by training, but now consult as a school-based trauma educator, working hard to help teachers understand what trauma-impacted behavior looks like in children and teens — and offer support rather than punishment (school to prison pipeline). Teachers can have a hard time accepting that their students’ ‘out of control’ behavior is frequently not directed at them, that their students often are not ‘making bad choices’ but rather operating in survival mode, and, as you point out, not outright lying, but telling events as their brain has recorded them. Over the years, punishing students for normal responses to trauma exacerbates and contributes to their trauma, and often leads to school push out. Thank you again for sharing your expertise!

    • I’m glad you found it helpful, Jenn. I do hope that education and legal systems – and parents and all of society – will start considering this information for all individuals – not just children.

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