I had just come to a stop when they pulled into my driveway directly behind me. Their headlights were set to high beams and I couldn’t see them for the glare in the rearview mirror. Chris was always showing up in a hurry, vehemently telling me to “get ready, we’re going out”. By the time I set the parking brake and turned off the stereo, Chris was not at my side window as I expected, maybe it wasn’t him. As I turned the key off, the headlights from behind dimmed and the glare reduction allowed me to see the passenger pulling a ski mask over his face in my rearview mirror. The driver was already stepping out of the car.
This was my point, my “switch”. The fear came over me and said “listen to me, do as I say”, and I did. He got off three rounds as I slid out of my truck, drawing my gun as the unburned powder peppered my face. But, I reverted to my training, returned fire and got ready for the aftermath. Most everyone has said that my training saved me when presented with the extreme reality of being instantly engaged by gunfire at short range. But what made me revert? Whatever triggered the application of my training actually saved my life.
It was the fear? OK, the fear is responsible for applying my training and saving my life, but what was it that recognized that I should fear something, or deeper yet, what caused me to look up at my mirror when I sensed the headlights dimming behind me? I hadn’t seen or heard anything overtly dangerous at that point, but I stopped what I was doing and looked up at that moment, instead of getting out first to greet whoever it may have been. So there was something there, albeit minute, before the fear, which made me want to reevaluate the situation. That’s what I was after when I started dissecting the whole incident, looking to make sense of why those little morsels of passive information triggered a nearly unconscious reaction.
It wasn’t the first time I had noticed that there was something happening to prepare me for somewhat unexpected occurrences from time to time. There is no argument that the more time you have to prepare for a violent encounter, the better your chances of survival. So what is it that makes us just “know” something, and how do we use it to predict violence? The answers lay hidden in plain view.
My shooting incident coincidently occurred during a period of great strides in neurological research and technology. While I was working my way through the veritable mountain of self defense literature exclusive of the professional training genre I had been immersed in up to that point, I realized that everything I was reading was based on the reactionary mindset. What tactics to use, what caliber and type of gun, best concealed clothing and holster for easy draw, how to reload and drills for clearing stoppages, target transitioning, etc.. Everything you need to know for after the violence commences. All of this is absolute in its necessity, but while expanding my research I found there were recent neurological discoveries that were exposing answers about violent behavior that applied directly to the subject of not just reacting to, but also understanding and avoiding ( possibly even predicting) lethal violence.
The jump to the scientific and medical literature was nearly accidental in nature as there exists a dichotomous relationship between the two worlds of the neurological and psychological scientists and the legally armed citizens who seek to counter criminal violence. Nearly all of the authors of the books and research journals I encountered, at some point, made anti-gun declarations and there doesn’t appear to be any overt effort to get this information out to the armed citizen for use now. Instead, the majority of the effort is to implement programs born of these discoveries into educational programs in an attempt to identify and correct the violent inclinations during childhood, before they become murderers and rapists.
I applaud the application of these wonderful discoveries and programs to help children and hopefully stem the tide of criminal violence. However, neglecting to acknowledge the benefits this would give the armed citizen, because of an anti-gun agenda, would be ridiculously ironic given the fact that the very literature they are producing professes, with steadfast momentum, that violence is a common and natural occurrence among humans, regardless of the presence of a gun or any other weapon for that matter. The only differences being that, with a gun, the attacker isn’t forced to be in close proximity to the victim, and the armed victim isn’t bound by the law of natural selection to lose if the attacker has an advantage leveraged by physical prowess or a weapon of their own. Anti-gun rhetoric aside, the science of what they present is solid.
The first dot from which all other dots in the self defense picture get their structure is the amygdala. No, it’s not a mythical deity that warns warrior spirits of imminent peril. It’s the area of the brain that has its finger on the emotional trigger of our brain. The amygdala and another part of the brain called the hippocampus are responsible for almost all memory retention.
The hippocampus takes the role of remembering the specifics of the memory such as context, but it is the amygdala that causes values and resultant emotion and action to be applied to those memories. For example, have you ever opened a drawer and jumped at the sight of a rubber snake or spider, only to exhale and smile a second later? How many times have you heard something that made you instantly burst out in laughter, maybe spraying your drink you had just taken a sip of only to be totally embarrassed a second later? Or how about when you smell something that immediately takes you back and not just remember, but feel the emotion of a fond moment in your past?
The emotion and initial reaction is the amygdala in action. The recognition that the snake in the aforementioned drawer was not in an enclosure protecting you from it was the hippocampus. The amygdala assigned an emotion (fear) which triggered an immediate reaction (a jump back and a possible yelp), and then the prefrontal lobes (the rational, “thinking” area of the brain) reasoned that because of the coloring, visible seams from the rubber mold, and lack of realism (from close scrutiny) that it was ok and you did not need to flee.
What is important to understand here is the order in which the signal is sent and what relationship each part of the brain shares with the collective response you display. When you open the drawer, your eyes send the signal of the snake to the thalamus, which in turn sends the signal to the visual cortex which links up with the prefrontal lobes to rationalize the situation. But, the thalamus first sends a signal, as little as 0.12 seconds prior to that, directly to the amygdala for an immediate survival reaction if necessary. The other signal, after being tempered with reason is still shot back to the amygdala for an assignment of “feeling” about what you are seeing, but it’s the initial signal to the amygdala that causes the fight or flight response.
How does the amygdala know to cause a hyper reaction to a realistic snake and the simple act of observation to a picture of a snake? Its close working relationship with the hippocampus in creation of memories allows this differentiation. It is the hippocampus that applies the context of what you are seeing. This, in turn, controls the degree to which the amygdala is stimulated by this initial vigilance signal. But, the threatening nature of the snake, aside from context, that results in a trigger reaction is the specialty of the amygdala’s memory function.
The creation of a memory is actually a secretion of chemicals and firing of neural synapses prompted by the amygdala/hippocampus team. A minor incident like watching traffic pass at a stop light solicits a very minor chemical/synapse imprint that is not an easily retrievable memory after the passage of minimal time. However, the major occurrence of a violent encounter leaves a neural imprint that can easily be retrieved years or decades after the event when triggered by the correct stimuli. This is the first dot in the connect-the-dots picture of defensive reaction. Before the emotional aspects of the incident (fear, loathing or panic) set in, there is also an immediate physical reaction commanded by the amygdala. This physical reaction (flinching, jumping back, yelling, screaming, etc.) is also a type of memory. It is a preprogrammed response from previous encounters or gained knowledge, stored in the same chemical/synapse method, and it can be reprogrammed.
While working with Blackwater USA, I worked in a specialized training course that specifically dealt with this reprogramming. The method was to cover the “victim” with a black hood that was quickly jerked to the ceiling via a rope and pulley. While under the hood and being subjected to an auditory distraction that sounded like bricks in a clothes dryer, aggressors would randomly position themselves around the victim and play their part when the hood was yanked up. You may be attacked from behind, swung at with a closed fist, slashed at with a training knife, shot at with a .357 loaded with blanks, simply asked for directions to the airport, etc. The pattern was random to evaluate the appropriateness of your response. The key was the violence of action. If you weren’t going to be queried for directions, it would always be an instantaneous, full contact act of aggression that would result in quick defeat if your amygdala caused a flinching or out of control physical withdraw. After repeated exposure to immediate violence over several days and then weeks, the amygdala began to be reprogrammed to react in an instantly aggressive nature, countering the violent attack as opposed to a flinching reaction. How significant is this? This physical reaction can be initiated in as little as twelve hundredths of a second. That’s 0.12 seconds. That’s Defensive Intelligence and that can save your life…if you’re training for it.