Paralysis Can Be a Natural Reaction to Date rape
This is the press release for my recently published article in the journal, Biofeedback, coauthored with Stephen Porges,
Stigma is often associated with inaction during a crisis. Those who freeze in the face of a life-threatening situation often experience feelings of shame and guilt, and they often feel that they are constantly being judged for their inaction. While others may confidently assert that they would have been more “heroic” in that situation, there is a far greater chance that their bodies would have reacted in exactly the same way, freezing as an innate part of self-preservation.
Stephen Porges and Erik Peper describe how immobilization is a natural neurobiological response to being attacked as can occur during date rape.in the article titled “When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape,” published in the journal Biofeedback .
The article explains the immobilization response in light of the polyvagal theory, which Porges introduced about 20 years ago. According to this theory, the brain reacts to various risk situations in three ways: The situation is safe, the situation is dangerous, or the situation is life-threatening. After our brain identifies risk, our body reacts either with a fight-or-flight response or, especially in dire situations, can become completely immobilized. The likelihood of an immobilization response increases when the person is physically restrained or is in a confined environment. Immobilization is also often accompanied by a higher pain threshold and a tendency to disassociate.
In the case of rape, it is often assumed that the victim should simply have said No, should have fought back, or should have made it clear that the sexual attention was unwanted. However, the more we learn about the brain’s response to extreme threats, the more we realize that it may be difficult to recruit the neural circuits necessary to verbally express oneself or to fight or flee, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved. Instead, it is a natural response for victims to freeze, to feel so physically threatened that their own body will not allow them to fight or flee.
Porges and Peper note that polyvagal theory supports a law passed in California in September 2014. The new law requires the governing boards of the state’s colleges and universities to adopt policies and procedures that require students who engage in sexual activity to obtain “affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision by each participant.” In other words, simply not saying No will no longer be tolerated as an excuse for rape.
The article conclude that victims of date rape should not feel shame or guilt if they froze in that situation. The body’s natural defense reactions are not just flight or fight; sometimes it is complete immobilization.
The authors hope that recognizing this will help people deal with trauma and help those around them understand their experiences. After a lecture, one of the authors, Peper, had a profound experience when a student came up to him with tears in her eyes. She explained that the same immobilization process happened to her two weeks before when she was robbed and she had felt so guilty.` Just listening to her made the efforts of writing the article worthwhile.”
Full text of the article, “When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape,” Biofeedback, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2015, is available at https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/porges-and-peper-date-rape.pdf
About the journal Biofeedback
Biofeedback is published four times per year and distributed by the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. The chief editor of Biofeedback is Donald Moss, Dean of Saybrook University’s School of Mind-Body Medicine. AAPB’s mission is to advance the development, dissemination, and utilization of knowledge about applied psychophysiology and biofeedback to improve health and the quality of life through research, education, and practice.
Allen Press, Inc.
800/627-0326 ext. 248
Dead bird on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands. The bird mistook attractive coloring of plastics that float in the ocean as food. From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtJFiIXp5Bo
Being captured by a digital device. From: http://images.gameskinny.com/gameskinny/c9689c75994e58a03dbc5e489d346e55.jpg
How come birds on Midway Island are dying?
How come your son keeps playing computer games even after he said he would stop?
How come you ate all the French fries and the dessert even though you promised yourself to reduce your calorie intake?
How come you procrastinated and did not get up from the couch to exercise?
How come you watched pornography?
The usual answer is absence of will, self-control or self-discipline. The person is automatically blamed for making poor life choices. If you had more self-worth than you would not let yourself get obese, addicted to computer games, or watch pornography. Blaming the victim is easy, however, there are other factors that underlie the person’s covert/unconscious choices. Many of these illness producing behaviors (e.g., overeating, playing the computer games, sitting and sitting) are responses to external cues that in prehistoric times promoted survival, reproduction and health. To respond rapidly and appropriately to those cues offered a reproductive advantages while not reacting would reduce your survival. In many cases there are no upper limits to turn off our responses to these cues because the more the person responded to those cues the more was there a reproductive advantage. Now, however, our adaptive preferences have become maladaptive because the cues that trigger the same behaviors lead to lower fitness and illness (Schlaepfer et al, 2002; Robertson et al, 2013). The cues have become evolutionary/ecological traps!
Some of the recent evolutionary/ecological traps include:
Vigilance for survival. While playing a computer games, the person rapidly responds and continuously experiences immediate rewards (e.g., successful shooting the target, points, next game level). This process activates the same survival mechanisms that hunter used for thousands of generations. A visual or auditory stimuli represents sources of food or danger (a game animal to hunt for food, an attack by a predator or an enemy). The visual/auditory cue captures the person’s attention and if the person reacts to that cue he would probably survive. On the other hand, if he did not react, he may not survive and reproduce. In our modern world, similar stimuli now hijack the neurological pathways that in earlier times supported survival. Over activation of these pathways is a cofactor in the development of ADHD and other disorders (Peper, 2014). For a superb discussion of how cellphones, computers, gaming and social medial are changing our brains, read Dr. Mari Swingle’s new book, i-Minds (Swingle, 2015)
Energy for survival: Eating carbohydrate/sugary and fat foods are necessary for survival as humans constantly searched for energy sources to support life. Breast milk and almost any fruit that is sweet contain calories and supports growth. If the food was bitter it was usually harmful. For most of our evolutionary past, we would eat as much as possible because food was scarce. There was no evolutionary advantage to limit food intake as the stored calories would supply enough calories to survive during periods of famine. In our modern world, our survival mechanisms have been hijacked by advertising and the oversupply of foods which contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
Being a couch potato and not moving again is again survival mechanism. In a prehistoric world with limited food supply, the less movement (the fewer calories you burned), the longer you could survive. You would move when you needed to build shelter or search for food. Again in a world where shelter and food are often abundant, there is no intrinsic mechanism to initiate movement.
Sexual arousal for reproduction: Men are often captured by pornography. They can watch for hours and feel aroused. The whole porn industry is based upon hijacking our sexual drive for reproduction.
Our brain does not discriminate between actual visual and auditory stimuli, imagined or film/video images. Until the late 19th century everything we saw and heard was real. Only in the 20th century could we produce images and sounds that appeared real. These film, TV , and the ever present digital displays activate the same neurophysiological pathways as when the stimuli were actually real. A scene on a digital screen triggers the same biological pathways and responses that for thousands of generations supported survival. If we did not respond we would not have survived. If you have any doubt, watch a scary horror movie and check how you feel afterwards. You may feel more scared, your sleep may be disturbed, your heart rate increased, and you probably interpreted any noise around you as possible danger. Thus, cues in the environment may become evolutionary/ecological traps in the same way that birds on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands, mistook the attractive coloring of plastics as food. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtJFiIXp5Bo. Should the birds be blamed because they have no self-control?
What can you do!
Recognize that modern industries for the sake of profits have hijacked our cues that had evolved to aid survival (Kemp, 2014).
Recognize that not reacting to product cues means inhibiting the intrinsic biological triggered survival responses. Yes, it is possible not react to the stimuli and demonstrate self-control; however, it is not only a problem of will. It is a problem that our cues have been hijacked and tricked for commercial profit.
Society may need to protect its own populations from commercial exploitation of evolutionary/ecological traps. A young child is automatically drawn to the visual stimuli on a smartphone and tablet which parents use to quiet the child during dinner. In this process they are activating the pre-wired biological pathways that captured attention for survival. By over activating these pathways, the brain is changing in response to this activation which increases the risk of developing ADHD, autism, and mood deregulation including anxiety, depression, and anger management, and other forms of addictive behavior (Swingle, 2015). In addition, school performance and memory retention are reduced when students take notes using their keyboard or read text from digital screens (OCallaghan, 2014). It will take the family and society to limit the availability of these cues until self-control has been developed. Similarly, the availability of cheap calories in large food portions, sugars in soft drinks and sugar and fats in snacks, need to be limited if the epidemic of obesity and diabetes is to be reversed.
It may be unreasonable to think that people can easily interrupt their biological responses to cues that have been created to increase profits. We need to take collective responsibility and limit the availability of commercially augmented evolutionary traps and cues in the same way we need to limit the plastic in the ocean so that the birds at Midway Island may be able survive. Without respecting our evolutionary past, our future may not be different from those Midway Island birds.
Kemp, C. (2014). Trapped!. New Scientist, 221(2960), 43-45
OCallaghan, T. (2014). Goodbye, paper: What we miss when we read on screen. New Scientist.224 (2993). 41-43.
Peper, E. (2014). Support Healthy Brain Development: Implications for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Psychophysiology Today, 9(1), 4‐15.
Robertson, B. A., Rehage, J. S., & Sih, A. (2013). Ecological novelty and the emergence of evolutionary traps. Trends in ecology & evolution, 28(9), 552-560.
Swingle, M.K. (2015). i-Minds. Portland, OR: Inkwaterpress.com ISBN-13 978-1-62901-213-1
Schlaepfer, M. A., Runge, M. C., & Sherman, P. W. (2002). Ecological and evolutionary traps. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 17(10), 474-480.