TIME politics

Another Conflict in Ukraine: Differing Versions of History

Angela Merkel And Francois Hollande Hold Ukraine Crisis Talks With Vladimir Putin
Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) attends a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and French President Francois Hollande (R) on Feb. 6, 2015 in Moscow, to discuss the conflict in Ukraine

Why it's hard to rely on historical memory

The 21st century has not started well. But we can’t be accused of forgetting how bad the last one was. Recently, even as we have witnessed both a glut of violent crises, from Syria to Ukraine, we’ve also seen a surge of public commemoration. The same month that the head of the United Nations refugee agency stated that the agency “has never had to address so much human misery in its 64-year history” also saw momentous worldwide observation of the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Still, there’s memory and then there’s memory. Just because the past is commemorated doesn’t mean it’s settled. In fact, the Auschwitz anniversary was the occasion for an inept tussle between Poland, Ukraine and Russia over who exactly liberated it the most. Between a peak of refugee distress and using Auschwitz for politics, the hope that remembering the past will improve our future is clearly embattled — literally.

Behind this brawl over the largest Nazi death camp is the grim war now raging in eastern Ukraine’s wintry fields, Europe’s — and perhaps the world’s — most dangerous hotspot since the end of the Cold War, where geopolitical strategies collide and memories clash. As to geopolitics, the stakes are high and rising. Russia denounces western encirclement; the West condemns Putin’s aggression. Hopes for growing cooperation — still alive, it seems, only yesterday — are dead. So are over 5,350 fighters and civilians. German intelligence sources have leaked an estimate for military and civilian casualties of 50,000, implying that Ukraine’s official figures are misleading. The dead, in any case, form only the tip of a swelling iceberg of the wounded, crippled and displaced. Russian planes and ships prod NATO provocatively. Some western experts, commanders and publicists demand weapons for Ukraine, which, Russia says, might lead to “catastrophe.” Mikhail Gorbachev, crucial in ending the Cold War, is now warning of a hot war between the West and Russia.

With a present that alarming, what use is there for the past?

Alas, too much. The row over Auschwitz was symptomatic: tragedies of the past have become positions in memory wars. It’s not only the Holocaust, but also World War II and the horrendous, policy-induced Soviet famine of 1932-33, which killed millions of victims in Ukraine (and beyond). The scale of these catastrophes partly explains their resonance. Globally, the Second World War brought violent death to more than 60 million people, the majority civilians. The Holocaust meant the mass murder of 6 million. In what was then Soviet Ukraine, that regime-made famine killed between 2.6 and 3.9 million victims; counting beyond Ukraine adds millions. Moreover, behind these numbers loom the long shadows of modern Europe’s totalitarian behemoths — of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union, of violent ethnic nationalism, of Communist authoritarianism beyond Stalinism, and of Europe’s long Cold War division.

Between 1945 and 1989, the continent was split not only by walls and barbed wire, but also by different ways of remembering and forgetting its brutal and often — as eminent historian Istvàn Deák’s new Europe on Trial reminds us — shameful past. While in the current crisis Ukraine’s internal divides or cohesion are debated, its uncanny power to bundle Europe’s anxieties not only about the future but also the past stems from this larger division. In Europe’s Cold War East, it was almost entirely forbidden to openly name the crimes of Communism or mourn its victims, while the crimes of Nazism — and the victory over it — became a cornerstone of official memory. Yet the Holocaust, while not denied, was also downplayed. The victims were often posthumously deprived of the Jewish identity for which they had been murdered. Also neglected were the perpetrators’ special anti-Semitic motives and the facts of local collaboration in hunting, plundering and killing Jews.

In the West, meanwhile, at least in the later postwar decades, a tendency developed to make the Holocaust a symbol of the crimes of Nazism in general. Facing the Soviet Union as a potential adversary, it was certainly not forbidden to name the crimes of Communism, including the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941 and the subjugation of Eastern Europe after the war. Yet many western Europeans chose, deliberately or inadvertently, to be less interested in Communist crimes and their victims. With regard to Communist crimes, one half of Europe was not allowed to talk about them, the other was not always eager to hear about them.

When, one generation ago, the Cold War was suddenly over, Europe faced a challenge: East and West shared what is, historically speaking, a new and unusual state of mind: the conviction that a recent, deeply compromised past was crucial to who they were. But they did not see eye to eye on the meaning of that past.

Now the war in Ukraine is turning into a catalyst for accelerated paradigm shift. Insisting on understanding World War II solely as the valiant fight against Nazism to which the Soviet Union contributed decisively at horrendous cost, Putin’s regime, fond of crude propaganda, seeks to exploit its idea of a Good War as cover for its current aggression. This strategy tends to credit only Russia with Soviet achievements and to trump up even Stalin as a symbol of patriotic statesmanship, glossing over his breathtaking record of violent despotism. Unfortunately, it has popular appeal as a recent poll shows. Meanwhile, post-Maidan Ukraine and its supporters, particularly among the former Soviet satellites, emphasize the collusion between Nazism and Stalinism, the evil of Soviet imperialism, and the fact that the sacrifices of defeating Nazism were not borne by Russia alone, but also by the other nations making up the Soviet Union, prominently including Ukraine.

There’s an irony here: A generation after the Cold War ended, with new confrontation looming, Europe’s foundational memories have received a violent jolt from the East pushing them toward convergence. Putin’s blunt armed aggression is likely to permanently tilt important segments of public opinion in western Europe not only against his regime, but also against its version of history.

This is not a simple happy end, for two reasons. First, it is tempting to confuse Putin and Russia and forget that the latter is a part of Europe too. In the long run, Europe cannot consolidate a shared memory by making Russia its abhorred foil. Secondly, no memory is flawless, and that also goes for the one favored by Ukraine and its supporters. In Ukraine, World War II nationalism, a proudly authoritarian and violent movement with strong anti-Semitic features that engaged in ethnic cleansing, is now officially presented as nothing but a noble national liberation effort. Yet there is no principal difference between whitewashing its leader, Stepan Bandera, into a mere “patriot” in “hard times” and doing the same for Stalin. Indeed, in the name of national unity and to make use of those volunteer fighters who are extreme nationalists and even Neo-Nazis, the Ukrainian government and media are now often turning a blind eye to the far right. Supporters of Ukraine do it no favor by abetting this bias. The present is an intensifying tragedy with a growing potential for catastrophic escalation, also beyond Ukraine. Putin is mobilizing manipulated memories as a weapon. Tacitly condoning a tit-for-tat response in the West offers us nothing except another way to raise the stakes. In a shooting war, memory may not strike us as the most important factor. Yet memory wars will only make finding peace harder.

Tarik Cyril Amar, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Columbia University, has lived and worked for five years in Ukraine. He holds degrees in History and International History from Oxford University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Princeton University. His book The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Nazis, Stalinists, and Nationalists will be published this fall by Cornell University Press. He comments regularly on the crisis in Ukraine.

TIME Careers & Workplace

3 Science-Backed Ways to Remember Anything

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Our ability to memorize is taking a back seat to convenience, but there must be a balance between the two


This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article below was originally published on The Muse.

In this age of smart phones, smart TVs, smart watches, smart glasses—the list is becoming endless—the only thing that seems to be getting duller may be our own brains.

Think of all the things we used to be forced to memorize, which have become relics of a quaint and incomprehensible past. Can you imagine actually memorizing someone’s phone number anymore? And we all know that person who can’t find his own friend’s house without staring at his GPS.

Our ability to memorize is taking a back seat to convenience, and if you’re like me, you’ve noticed the detrimental effects.

It’s not all bad—professor of psychology Daniel Wegner has argued that new technology and search engines may be becoming helpful “virtual extensions of our memory” (sort of like what you do when you leave it to your significant other to remember important dates).

But there are disturbing consequences. A 2013 poll from The Trending Machine National showed that Millennials age 18-34 are “significantly more likely than seniors ages 55 or older to forget what day it is (15% vs. 7%), where they put their keys (14% vs. 8%), forget to bring their lunch (9% vs. 3%), or even to take a bath or shower (6% vs. 2%).”

A balance between memory and convenience must be achieved, and it is clearly time to fight back.

Here are three tips based on new scientific research that you can use to gain back control over your memory.

1. Associate Your Memories With Physical Objects

Here’s a common memory problem that can cause you huge embarrassment at the office: forgetting someone’s name. Whether you’re meeting a new employee or on the phone with an important client, finding a way to remember names can be the difference between making a great impression or committing a serious social blunder.

Next time you meet someone, try to associate his or her name with a physical object, like signs, buildings, billboards—basically anything that you can see, feel, or touch counts. Essentially, you’re connecting something tangible with more abstract information such as names, numbers, dates, or appointments, making them easier to remember.

So, if you meet Pete, for example, and he’s got a pen in his pocket, think of him as Pen Pete. The possibilities for object association with abstract information is nearly infinite, so get creative. (In my case, the more ridiculous my associations are, the more memorable they become.)

You’re probably used to using this physical object strategy when trying to remember directions—“turn left at the big red sign.” This is a natural association that has worked beautifully for the entirety of human existence. So why not apply it elsewhere?

2. Don’t Just Memorize by Repetition—Also Pay Attention to Nuance

Everyone is familiar with the old saying, “practice makes perfect.” Interestingly, scientists have found that while repetitive practice can enhance your ability to remember the “big picture” outline of an object, it is detrimental to remembering the minute details.

New research suggests that, although developing “muscle memory” is an efficient method for memorizing information and learning new tasks in a general way, it will impair your ability to memorize and learn in a thorough manner.

Think about it: If you’ve ever memorized a presentation without actually understanding what you’re saying, you know what happens. You either can’t remember what you’re supposed to say, or you come off sounding like a robot. God forbid that you get interrupted and can’t find your place again.

When it comes to memorization, rote repetition is not enough. Repetition needs to be complemented by an understanding of the details to successfully present in a way that commands your audience.

So what should you do? Practice repetitively—but ensure that your repetition is supported by a solid foundation of understanding.

3. Doodle Like Crazy

This will seem counterintuitive to some of you, but my fellow doodlers have known this truth for a long time—doodling while ingesting non-visual information helps to increase memory retention rate significantly.

A 2009 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology demonstrated that people who were asked to doodle while listening to a list of names were able to recall 29% more of the names on average over non-doodlers. Doodles don’t even have to be related to the topic at hand. Per The Wall Street Journal, “Jesse Prinz draws people’s heads to help himself pay attention during lectures and the speeches at conferences he attends.”

How can doodling be this effective? Studies suggest that the act actually helps you to remain more focused and retain more information because it helps your brain retain a baseline of activity that may otherwise vanish during a dry lecture or speech. In other words, doodling keeps you awake and focused!

So next time you’re in a meeting, bust out a writing utensil and start drawing—though you may want to sit toward the back!

As we continue our journey into the 21st century, improving technology will only make the world even more convenient. We’ll have to remember less and even begin to rely heavily on automation in every facet of our lives.

While it would be easy to settle in to all of this convenience, aim to keep your memory sharp and your wits about you.

More from The Muse:

TIME Research

This Is How You Can Lose Weight Using Just Your Mind

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It’s simple — just remember what you’ve already eaten and you feel less hungry

People may be able to control their hunger pangs (to an extent) if they try to remember the last food they’ve eaten, a psychologist has found.

Eric Robinson says psychological factors can impact how much you eat and believes appetite is formed in the mind as much as it is in the stomach, the BBC reports.

The University of Liverpool scientist studied people who suffer from anterograde amnesia and found that they still have a sensory memory of the food they have eaten, even though they have no conscious memory of it.

Similarly, those who were made to mediate on the food they’ve already eaten throughout the day felt less of a need to consume more.

Read more at the BBC.

TIME Aging

What You Should Know About Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

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The condition affects about 200,000 people in the United States

Julianne Moore won a Golden Globe Sunday for her portrayal of an early-onset Alzheimer’s patient in the film Still Alice. Moore’s character, Alice Howland, is just 50 when she is diagnosed, and the movie follows her and her family’s struggle to cope as her memory and mental state decline.

But what is early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and who is at risk? Here’s what you should know about the condition that affects about 200,000 people in the United States.

HEALTH.COM: 25 Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Not just for old people

Alzheimer’s disease is usually thought of as something senior citizens get. While that is often true, it’s not always the case: Up to 5% of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are under age 65—usually in their 40s or 50s—and are considered to have an “early onset” or “younger onset” of the disease.

Symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s are no different than symptoms of more traditional cases, says Mary Sano, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of Alzheimer’s disease research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in the Bronx, whom Moore consulted during her research for Still Alice. But because the condition is so rare in adults under 65, the signs may not be recognized as quickly by patients themselves, or by those around them.

“By the time people ask for help, something strange has probably been going on for at least six months,” says Sano. “And often, it’s family members and close friends who can provide a point of view that a change has occurred, which can allow that person to realize something is wrong.”

HEALTH.COM: 7 Ways to Protect Your Memory

Because early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is so uncommon, diagnosis may also require testing above and beyond what a senior citizen might undergo. “We want to demonstrate that what’s really present is a cognitive problem and not a psychological or physical problem,” says Sano. “For a younger person, we’ll do a more rigorous workup, including imaging and other tests, because we want to make sure we get this right.”

Early-onset disease has a strong genetic component, so family history—if the patient knows enough about it—can be a big part of a person’s diagnosis, as well. A blood test can determine whether someone has a gene mutation that puts them at higher risk for familial Alzheimer’s, but cannot prove whether they have (or will get) the disease.

What it’s like—and what it’s not

First things first: Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is uncommon, and it’s not responsible for most cases of middle-aged forgetfulness—like not being able to remember where you put your keys, or the name of someone you met at a cocktail party last night, for example.

Episodes like these, says Sano, are most likely due to preoccupation or periods of temporary stress, and usually aren’t anything to worry about.

When you should be concerned, she says, is when problems with your memory begin to interfere with your ability to do the things that are most important to you, or when you start to have difficulty completing common, everyday tasks. “It’s the persistence and the erratic nature of the symptoms that’s the real warning sign.”

In fact, Sano says, people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease often subconsciously modify or adapt their routines to the point where they don’t even notice specific red-flag incidents. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, warning signs may include the regular use of memory devices, relying on friends and family to do things you used to handle yourself, or withdrawal from work or social activities.

HEALTH.COM: 12 Unexpected Things That Mess With Your Memory

Symptoms are different for everyone, but one thing to watch for is difficulty remembering and retaining new information, says Sano. “Not being able to learn your new computer password, or to learn a new activity or take on a new project—those are usually the challenges at the earliest stages of the disease,” she says.

As the disease progresses, however, all forms of memory are affected. In Still Alice, Moore’s character becomes concerned when she—a linguistics who is known for her mastery of speech—loses her train of thought during a presentation and cannot think of the words to continue. In other scenes throughout the movie, she gets disoriented while out for a jog, forgets her daughter’s name, and, yes, misplaces her keys.

As the movie shows, early-onset Alzheimer’s can be especially devastating because people in their 40s and 50s are often still working and caring for children. “They’re at risk for having more functional loss, and having their life and their family’s lives affected much more than someone who’s several decades older,” says Sano. “And so the management of the disease really requires a lot of thoughtfulness and a lot of extra service.”

Treatment and hope

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, no matter what age onset occurs. But there are drugs that can slow its progression, and there are ways in which Alzheimer’s patients and their families can better manage living with the disease.

Staying physically, socially, and mental active can also provide protection against the disease and may help people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease maintain their cognition longer, says Sano. Specifically, research has shown that doing crossword puzzles and speaking a second language may help slow declines in thinking and memory.

In addition, there are many opportunities for Alzheimer’s patients to take part in ongoing research, says Sano, which may lead the way to better treatment options. She recommends talking to your doctor or visiting the National Institutes of Health’s Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center online for information about clinical trials happening near you.

Sano hasn’t seen Moore’s performance in Still Alice (the movie will be officially released on Friday), but she’s glad the actress did her due diligence when preparing for the part. “When we worked with her, we were impressed with her awareness of the impact of the disease—not only on the individuals, but on the people around them as well,” she says.

She’s also grateful for the opportunity the film provides to show people another side to Alzheimer’s disease. “Many people don’t know what this is and so they don’t seek advice when they see victims,” she says. “It’s critically important to allow people to find out about the disease, and raise awareness about something they need to pay attention to—something they may even be living through.”

HEALTH.COM: 15 Diseases Doctors Misdiagnose

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Research

Yes, Closing Your Eyes Really Does Help You Recall Things Better

It works for both visual and audio memories

A new study suggests that closing one’s eyes actually does help an individual recall things in more accurate detail.

According to research findings published in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology, subjects who participated in a recent study at the U.K.’s University of Surrey had more accurate recollections of visual and audio memories when they closed their eyes during testing.

The survey also found that individuals who had better rapport with their interviewers scored higher on tests, reports the BBC.

Closing one’s eyes will “help people visualize the details of the event they are trying to remember,” lead researcher Robert Nash told the BBC. He added that it could “help focus on audio information, too.”


TIME Gadgets

Samsung Unveils Crazy-Small Drive That Gives You 1TB of Storage


And reportedly can rip a movie in 8 seconds flat

Samsung unveiled the mighty mouse of storage devices at its Consumer Electronics Show presentation on Monday.

The company says its Portable SSD T1 storage device, which is roughly the size of a business card and can store up to a terabyte of data, can transfer content from any device at roughly four times the rate of the average external drive. A 3MB movie, for instance, can rip to the drive in 8 seconds.

It also comes at a whopping price: a full terabyte of storage will set you back $599, but you can spend a more budget-friendly $179 for 250 GB.

TIME Food & Drink

One Good Reason to Eat Chocolate Today

Natalia Campbell of NC Photography—Getty Images

Chocolate-holics, rejoice! New research suggests chocolate may help boost your memory

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

As if we needed one more reason to love chocolate, now a new study shows it may hold a bonus health benefit: a memory boost. A new study published in Nature suggests that a compound found in the treat could actually mitigate age-related memory loss.

Researchers at Columbia University looked at the brains of 37 50- to 69-year-olds. Half of the participants received a chocolaty, high-flavanol​ (compounds from cocoa) drink every day for three months. The other half drank a similar mix containing far fewer flavanols. Results showed that those drinking the high-flavanol mix exhibited improvements on memory tests and higher activity in the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus linked with memory. In other words, we may be able to use chocolate to help fight normal, age-related memory loss.

(MORE: 5 Surprising Ways to Boost Your Memory)

This isn’t the first time chocolate has been linked to our health. Dark chocolate may help reduce inflammation, and it houses antioxidants, which are thought to help the body’s cells resist damage. It has also been linked to improved mood, heart disease prevention, and protection of the skin from UV rays.

(MORE: 6 Ways to Have Healthy Holidays)

Does that mean these findings are an RX to OD on chocolate? Not so fast. While the compounds found in cocoa may have some powerful memory magic, according to this newest research, a sugar binge isn’t the answer: You’d have to eat about 300 grams of dark chocolate per day, according to The New York Times. A typical dark chocolate bar contains about 24g of sugar and a whopping 43g of fat. Plus, you’d have to eat about three of those daily to obtain the same amount of flavanols as the study’s participants. As with most things, chocolate is best enjoyed in moderation.

(MORE: How to Keep Things in Moderation)

TIME health

5 Surprising Ways to Boost Your Memory

rubberball—Getty Images

Everything from the right snack foods to incorrect answers might play a role in keeping you sharp

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

1. Nibble on chocolate: Just this week, we learned that eating chocolate might lessen age-related memory loss. Columbia University researchers studied almost 40 adults between 50 and 69 years old, and found that those who drank a high-flavanol cocoa mix every day for three months performed better on memory tests and had higher activity in the area of the brain linked with memory.

2. Make a mistake: A recent University of Toronto study found that memories of both young and older adults might benefit from errors. When given memory tests, participants were better at remembering the previous correct answer if they had first gotten it wrong. Random guessing, however, was not beneficial. Scientists only saw memory improvements when participants made educated guesses, or previous errors were of the “close-but-no-cigar” category.

3. Sip some green tea: Aside from being the perfect partner to a good book, this soothing drink may also have an effect on working memory. A 2014 study from University Hospital of Basel found that male volunteers who drank green tea extract performed better on memory tasks.

(MORE: How to Keep Things in Moderation)

4. Break a sweat: Vancouver scientists looked at older women with mild cognitive impairment who were at risk for dementia, and found that they seriously benefitted from a simple six-month exercise program. Out of 86 women studied, those selected to undergo the exercise program showed significantimprovement in verbal and spatial memory—the ability to remember words, and the ability to remember where objects were placed.

If that’s not enough reason to hit the gym, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that an intense 20-minute workout can boost long-term memory by as much as 10 percent in young adults.

5. Have a drink: No, this isn’t permission to start a bar tab, but researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that light alcohol consumption could be linked to better episodic memory—the memory of events. They studied adults over age 60 with no indication of dementia, and saw that moderate drinking was associated with larger hippocampal brain volume—the area of the brain responsible for the consolidation of short- and long-term memory.

(MORE: 6 Ways to Have Healthy Holidays)


This Is the Easiest Productivity Hack in the History of Work

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You can literally do this in one second

To learn better, hit control-s and “outsource” your remembering.

In a new study, scientists found that people tackling a mental challenge on a computer did a better job if they saved the previous work they had been doing beforehand.

“Saving one file before studying a new file significantly improved memory for the contents of the new file,” the authors write. “Saving has the potential to significantly influence how people learn and remember.”

In a series of experiments, participants were instructed to study two PDF files and remember words it contained. Subjects did a better job remembering material from the second file if they successfully saved the first file before proceeding onto the second one.

“Saving allows us to maintain access to more data and experiences than would be possible otherwise,” says says Benjamin Storm, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author of the study. “Memory now works in concert with technology, and by saving information we are able to keep that information from interfering with the learning of something new.”

The act of saving something digitally gives us a sense of reassurance that the information is there when we need it, which psychologically frees up our mind and allows us to focus on the next batch of information we need to learn. Essentially, we’re reallocating our mental resources.

“To maximize memory and productivity we need to be able to set stuff aside and move on to other matters,” Storm says.

In earlier research, he found that thinking of new things makes it harder to remember old thoughts. If you’re worrying if or when you’ll need to refer to earlier information in the future, hitting the “save” button or shortcut is a quick, easy and low-risk way way to virtually hang onto that information without forcing it to occupy the forefront of your mind.

“Saving may protect us from this type of thinking-induced forgetting by allowing us to think of new ideas while keeping our old ideas safely saved and out of the way,” Storm says.

Storm points out that his experiments just looked at what happens when someone saves a file before closing it and starting a new task, but he says it’s not a bad idea to save your work on a regular basis anyway.

When new information crowds out older thoughts, people can even forget their own ideas, Storm says. “Save or write down good ideas as soon as you get them,” he advises. “Even if you think you’re going to remember them, chances are that you won’t, especially if you continue to try to think of new ideas.”


Why Rape and Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories

University Of Virginia Fraternity At Center Of Disputed Rolling Stone Magazine Story On Alleged Gang Rape Incident
Jay Paul—Getty Images The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house is seen on the University of Virginia campus on December 6, 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

James Hopper, Ph.D., trains investigators, prosecutors, judges and military commanders on the neurobiology of sexual assault. David Lisak, Ph.D., is a forensic consultant, researcher, national trainer and the board president of 1in6.

In the midst of assault, the brain's fear circuitry takes over while other key parts are impaired or even effectively shut down. This is the brain reacting to a life-threatening situation just the way it is supposed to

A door opens and a police officer is suddenly staring at the wrong end of a gun. In a split second, his brain is hyper-focused on that gun. It is very likely that he will not recall any of the details that were irrelevant to his immediate survival: Did the shooter have a moustache? What color was the shooter’s hair? What was the shooter wearing?

The officer’s reaction is not a result of poor training. It’s his brain reacting to a life-threatening situation just the way it is supposed to—just the way the brain of a rape victim reacts to an assault. In the aftermath, the officer may be unable to recall many important details. He may be uncertain about many. He may be confused about many. He may recall some details inaccurately. Simultaneously, he will recall certain details – the things his brain focused on – with extraordinary accuracy. He may well never forget them. All of this, too, is the human brain working the way it was designed to work.

Last week, Rolling Stone issued a note about their story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia after reports surfaced of discrepancies in the victim’s accounting. We cannot comment on that particular and clearly complex case without knowing the facts. But in our training of police investigators, prosecutors, judges, university administrators and military commanders, we’ve found that it’s helpful to share what’s known about how traumatic experiences affect the functioning of three key brain regions.

First, let’s consider the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is responsible for “executive functions,” including focusing attention where we choose, rational thought processes and inhibiting impulses. You are using your prefrontal cortex right now to read this article and absorb what we’ve written, rather than getting distracted by other thoughts in your head or things going on around you. But in states of high stress, fear or terror like combat and sexual assault, the prefrontal cortex is impaired – sometimes even effectively shut down – by a surge of stress chemicals. Most of us have probably had the experience of being suddenly confronted by an emergency, one that demands some kind of clear thinking, and finding that precisely when we need our brain to work at its best, it seems to become bogged down and unresponsive. When the executive center of the our brain goes offline, we are less able to willfully control what we pay attention to, less able to make sense of what we are experiencing, and therefore less able to recall our experience in an orderly way.

Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in. When it does, it is no longer the prefrontal cortex running the show, but the brain’s fear circuitry – especially the amygdala. Once the fear circuitry takes over, it – not the prefrontal cortex – controls where attention goes. It could be the sound of incoming mortars or the cold facial expression of a predatory rapist or the grip of his hand on one’s neck. Or, the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the many different elements of the unfolding assault. And what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.

The brain’s fear circuitry also alters the functioning of a third key brain area, the hippocampus. The hippocampus encodes experiences into short-term memory and can store them as long-term memories. Fear impairs the ability of the hippocampus to encode and store “contextual information,” like the layout of the room where the rape happened. Fear also impairs its ability to encode time sequencing information, like whether the perpetrator ripped off a shirt before or after saying “you want this.”

Our understanding of the altered functioning of the brain in traumatic situations is founded on decades of research, and as that research continues, it is giving us a more nuanced view of the human brain “on trauma.” Recent studies suggest that the hippocampus goes into a super-encoding state briefly after the fear kicks in. Victims may remember in exquisite detail what was happening just before and after they realized they were being attacked, including context and the sequence of events. However, they are likely to have very fragmented and incomplete memories for much of what happens after that.

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.

James Hopper, Ph.D., is an independent consultant and Instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He trains investigators, prosecutors, judges and military commanders on the neurobiology of sexual assault. David Lisak, Ph.D., is a forensic consultant, researcher, national trainer and the board president of 1in6, a non-profit that provides information and services to men who were sexually abused as children.

Read next: It’s Women Who Suffer When We Don’t Ask Questions

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