Defensive Intelligence: Connecting the Dots

Defensive Intelligence: Connecting the Dots
Defensive Intelligence: Connecting the Dots
Defensive Intelligence: Connecting the Dots
Defensive Intelligence: Connecting the Dots

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.

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James Barnhart is a Veteran of the U.S. Navy, a former fugitive recovery agent and contract bodyguard and is a gunfight survivor. James has been operational and/or an instructor for firms such as Vance International, Dyn-Corp and the former Blackwater USA. He currently is an NRA instructor and teaches unarmed and armed self defense and lectures on the psychological and physiological aspects of training for violent confrontation. He has also been featured on the Dr. Gina Loudon Radio Talk Show. He can be reached at DefCon CCW and followed on twitter @defconccw.
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pastor T

Well, you certainly have thought a lot about  why you looked in the rear view mirror and why you thought it was a threat situation and why you fired back.  Sorry, I just don’t buy it!  Looking back would be natural to see who was there(albeit being aware of your surroundings is part of that).  As far as going into fight mode at the sight of the mask, it seems like nothing more than a natural response.  I don’t think you need “black ops”  training with hoods over your head and so on for that.  To me you seem to be trying to make a science out of something that can be called a reaction to danger.  

As far as “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.I know God leads me, directs me, speaks to me, and protects me!  I would much rather trust the Lord to warn me of imminent peril than the “amygdala.”  I still believe in being aware of your surroundings and being ready and able to defend yourself, your family, and those around you by practice and staying sharp.  As far as the rest…Well…whatever, so long as you stand your ground and survive!  and I’m glad you did!


While Mr.Barnhart’s article is detailed and perhaps somewhat wordy he is thorough and passionate about his topic.  To be honest, I found myself wishing that he would get through the science lesson and make his point but I still found the reading worthwhile.  Out of curiosity I looked up a couple of other articles that he has written.   His writing style is equally detailed and passionate in all of the articles.  That’s simply his style and I do buy it.  It’s really no secret that training enhances reaction and minimizes error.  Mr. Barnhart just explained why and it was informative.


When it hits the fan, you fall back  to your level of training.  If you have no training, you will likely end up dead.  It gets better from there with more training.  Like George Wehby says, train safe, train hard, train smart.


 Mr Barnhart’s writing skills are sometimes detailed to prove a point. His ‘trained’ understanding of the Science behind the actions, is above the average person’s cognizance.

 In our Xe/Blackwater TI CCW class of 40 Citizens, we had an elderly Pastor who had never fired a handgun. His deep comprehension of the material, including live fire scores were unbeatable on range certification day. I would say ‘The Lord’ obviously gave him a special Gift. I hope that he is nearby, if any situation demands quick steady and accurate ‘blessings’ in response to aggression.

I also applaud the CC armed ‘church lady’ in Colorado that using the same ‘Blessed’ response mentality, Stopped a mentally deranged slaughter in her church. No ‘Deer in the Headlights’ reactions exhibited in her situation,… Thank the Lord. :>)

David Daniel

This is certainly an interesting beginning to something that could be expounded upon and researched (and probably is) enough to fill many thick volumes. As the author alludes it is uncovering the structure of something very fundamental, puzzling and truly vast in scope in terms of information. It  is insights like this that will make for better warriors in the near-future if not already. Knowledge is power folks, and while it may be simple enough to say an individual is in an aggressive posture which triggers this or that reaction I would say that it is the warrior who sees the threat and was alerted to it due to an awareness of their environment,  read body language, grasp of the situation, and/or pick up on ques consciously that our unconscious mind would normally alert us to later by reaction, in a predictive manner, is the superior warrior. 

I would submit to the author that there may be another area of exploration in his recall of the incident. One could say the incident is a “no duh” situation (blocked driveway, bright lights and ski mask 🙂 ) but there were likely subtle overtures in body language that his conscious mind was not processing but which his unconscious mind took to “step up his threat condition”. Essentially the silent alarms going off beneath the louder ones. 🙂 While his conscious mind was perceiving the obvious aggression of the assailant/s another part of his mind was alerting him to their silent ques of aggression such as their postures  and movement (not just the movement but the minutiae of HOW they moved) 10,000 little computations went on inside his head without his immediate knowledge of it.

Taking that into account, the micro and the macro perceptions, trained actions and reactions and understanding that our mind and our bodies are only so fast we can create better training methods to increase our chance of survival. We can never perceive any event truly instantaneously because there is a delay between the action performed and the speed of the light reaching our eyes, there is a delay in our sensory organs and their connection to our brains and within our brains and a delay in our brain to nervous system connection and so in our overall ability to react. What you perceive as “now” simply isn’t. How do we as humans cope? How does a baseball batter hit a ball besides hand-eye coordination? It is because our minds (our God-Given Quantum Neural Network aka the most complex thing we know of in all the Universe) are running a constant model of our perceived patch of the universe based on all the information we are perceiving, based on all the memory of our lives and our experience and it is applying that to our whole being in its totality every moment. So it is the level beyond our conscious awareness and understanding that the ball is travelling in a trajectory toward the hitter, the level of the unconscious mind that allows us to extrapolate all this information and “know without knowing” when to swing to utilize that training despite our biological lag in reaction.

So it is established that human beings do have a natural predictive capability and by honing our awareness and knowledge we can hone that predictive ability to gain a tiny advantage. And how do we do that? By life experience and training. What did I take from the authors article? That training is good and the inference that dynamic training can give an edge. What can you take from my text based stilted word chowder? That training is good and that dynamic training can give an edge. In training and in real world situations we are not merely strengthening muscle memory but increasing an unconscious and subtle knowledge base of life experience that can mean the difference between life and death. The hidden triggers, all that stuff going on before the “0.12” reaction time.

A lot just to say. Training = Good.

One hundredth of a second is a strike of lightning. One tenth of a second is a blink of an eye. One second is a single heartbeat.

James G. Barnhart

David, thank you for your thoughts.  There were many questions created from that incident that I have researched over the years and infused into my training. One of the biggest catylists of this was the realization that 1/3 of all police officers killed in the line of duty showed no signs of an attempt at self defense. Gun still holstered. This stat comes from the research of Lt.Col Dave Grossman for anyone who wants to question that.  Even though they had training that exceeded the average citizen, they were unprepared. I had very strong feelings about what I experienced and how it was different from what I had been trained to expect.  There is much more I have found out over the years in my research and training experiences while operational, and I will be writing about it and posting here. Don’t want to run out of gas by posting it all at once.


Did this even happen or is is a made up story?


You can see my story and a newspaper clip of the incident on my website listed in my bio above. J. Barnhart


What would have happened if the assailant had not dimmed his lights? If it had been me being accosted, I would first have switched my rear view mirror to low glare in order to be able to see better, then proceeded from there. Also the assailant was pretty stupid to be pulling on his hood  when things were about to go critical. 

James G. Barnhart

I did switch the mirror, the glare was because my rear cab window wast frosted over with dirt and only barely saw him pulling the hood down. If he hadn’t been pulling his hood down it probably would have come out a lot worse for me.


A lot of nonsensical verbige.  What was he trying to do impress us with academic crap.   He did several things wrong and was fortunate that it worked in his favor. 

James G. Barnhart

And that’s why, according to LtCol. Dave Grossman, that 1/3 of all police officers killed in the line of duty didn’t show any signs of self defense.  They were in denial or just mentally incapable of absorbing the concepttual base of their training.

Of course I did several things wrong, I was 23 yrs. old with only basic tactical training under my belt. That was 1995. All these years later after all the research and experiencing the high quality training I received at Vance, Dyn-Corp, Blackwater and personal experience; this academic crap is what all serious tactical programs utilize for training developement. Not trying to impress anyone as you can see that I offer no training videos and your reading this does nothing for me financially. I don’t sell anything on my website, no “secret reports”, no how-to-manuals that you are only available to the “first 50” customers. I don’t sell ad space. I have one gunshop ad on my sight and that is unpaid because he is a friend of mine. I’ve experienced some great training and helped develope it even further. Just trying to get people to think. My funding comes from personal training and I don’t need to write articles to get that business, I impress people with what they are able to accomplish if they are pointed in the right direction. But, hey, thanks for your input. LOL

David Daniel

There will always be people who cannot or will not see the forest for the trees. 


I thoughtthe article was well written and made a lot of sense. Of course I am no expert, just a military retiree.  
Thank you.


Fight or flight – as old as man. You may be able to ‘condition’ it in a specific set of circumstances –  (with much operate conditioning) much like Pavlov did his dogs – but to ‘train’ someone as to how to react when the ‘switch’ is flipped, in a broad set of situations, is not yet possible and, IMO, not desirable. What is removed/added, while it might be beneifical in one case could be fatal in others – how do you know ahead of time? Good article to stimulate discussion (although a bit verbose).

James G. Barnhart

Mac, thanks for the comment.. It is possible. I’ve seen it and trained in it and have realized measurable results with modified training with civilians. In broad situations there are very defined indicators of imminent lethal violence. The key is understanding how and when the mind see’s these indicators, not when you realize they are in play because there is a lag. When you understand that, you have the key. You then know how to configure the training. This is not what some have called “black-ops” training. It begins with visual and auditory conditioning for threat indicators. Some scientists way smarter than me came up with what these were to be, based on decades of research into the human psyche and what triggers physiological responses. It is exactly the opposite of psychiatric therapy for someone who is, for instance, panicked to the point of paralysis when they see a spider in front of them. And, here we go, a lot of this is because of the mass conditioning of our collective minds from witnessing violence on a regular basis on TV, in the news, movies, video games, etc. (yes, I know what will come from saying this)These pre-violence indicators, regardless of the situation, are common throughout the spectrum of possible scenarios. These are then coupled with tangible consequence conditioning and then stepped up to be incorporated in training scenarios. The possible scenarios are limitless and we try to never subject a student to the same scenario, ever. Yes, this takes MUCH effort. Creation of patterns is dangerous, as is the favoring of common indicators over less common or complex set-up conditions. There is very little weapons work in this until the latter stages wich can be months along in the training. Calibrating this is many hours of alternating between violent and non-violent situations so the student does not react on split second predictions, only on split second exposure to an actual violence indicator that has been put into play.


Good info, what its missing is how the average person can train for it.

James G. Barnhart

Well if you live in NW Ohio, you come see me. Otherwise, standby for more articles. 🙂

David Daniel

Ah very interesting. I live 20 miles outside of Toledo.