Survivors of organized violence often left with traumatic memories

Victims of torture found to have permanent mental trauma

University Park, Pa. October 26, 2006 - A series of studies, conducted by a psychotraumatology research group headed by Thomas Elbert in collaboration with Penn State psychologist William Ray, has examined a group of people who have been exposed to different magnitudes of torture and found the appearance of dissociation (mental separation from the incident) long after the event. The research is published in the latest issue of Psychological Science.

Those who experienced multiple and extreme trauma stopped responding physiologically and began to feel numb. The researchers believe that, just as the body can turn off some of its stress response during feelings of great terror or helplessness, the mind has a way of turning off strong emotions in overwhelming situations.

The research group examined the functional architecture of the brain in relation to varying degrees of dissociation. They observed that dissociative experiences are reflected in slow, abnormal brainwaves in an area that contributes to verbalizing and the ability to plan and prepare for actions.

Observation of structural or functional brain lesions has led the authors to interpret their findings as a sign of the brain decoupling these regions from sensory experience and action. They believe this is the only response that seems possible during serious torture but note that, when maintained later in life, the long-term consequences are devastating. This brain reorganization is maintained even when the torture is over.

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This study is published in the current issue of Psychological Science. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article please contact journalnews@bos.blackwellpublishing.net

William J. Ray is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Penn State University. He can be contacted for questions at wjr@psu.edu.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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