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STRESS REACTIONS

Related to Lethal Force Encounters

 

By Bill Lewinski, Ph. D.

The Police Marksman May/June 2002 pgs 22-28

Let’s take this example to a street encounter, you’re in a face-to-face shooting situation in the street.   You have your weapon drawn, front sight on the subject, locked eye-to-eye with him.  You are ordering the subject (who has his hands on his waist) to raise his hands.  Even if you were not under stress, if you maintain eye-to-eye focus and the subject is close enough that the waist was beyond the five degrees of central focus, you would not be able to tell what, if anything, was in his hands.  However, you would have no hesitation in discharging your weapon if the subject rapidly moved his hand from his waist and thrust it toward you as if drawing a pistol.  This motion is the contextual clue that leads you to conclude that what you could not see for certain was actually a weapon and you’re going to be shot at.  You would have the same certainty that you were going to be shot, as you would have about the lines on the page being writing.   This is because of our habit and confidence in using contextual clues.

 

In this particular illustration, contextual clues are the only clues that the officer can rely on, even if he changes from an eye-to-eye focus to and eye-to-weapon focus by looking directly at the waistband.  In a study I did that was published in The Police Marksman, (November/December, 2000) I had subjects draw and fire a gun from the waistband area.  The fastest time for a self-initiated draw to a combat tuck position or a draw to arm extension position both resulted in the weapon being drawn and fired in 9/100ths of a second.  The full motion was caught in three frames of a digital video camera.  The eyes of an officer looking directly at the weapon as it rapidly moved to firing position would not be able to discriminate whether the weapon was a revolver, semi-automatic, cap gun or nothing but a pointed finger.  If the officer waited until the weapon had reached its peak of motion and stopped so his eyes could see that it really was a handgun, at least two rounds could be fired at him before he could even compete the action of pulling of his trigger.  This would happen even if he were set to fire, had his finger on the trigger and had already made the decision to shoot if threatened.

 

 The movement in this illustration would have been detected by the peripheral vision, which lacks the ability to determine color at night and also to do fine discrimination – such as distinguishing a revolver from a semi-automatic even in daylight.  The peripheral vision is also narrowed during periods of high and low stress.  Dr. Jean Williams, from the University of Arizona found an approximately 20% loss of peripheral vision on either side, created just by the stress of having subjects do two visual things at the same time.

 

The eye undergoes three changes under high stress.  The pupils dilate, the lens flattens and the eyes begin to move in a “saccadic” fashion.  The general theory as to why the lens flattens and pupils dilate suggests that this helps us see better in low light and at a reasonable distance.  This would be important to a species which survived in a world where they were hunted by predators at dawn and dusk.

 

The saccadic movement of the eye is a rapid, jerky, irregular scanning motion.  Apparently, under stress, the eye makes this movement because it allows it to pick up more visual clues at a time when conscious interaction between the brain and the eye might be too slow.  Because saccadic movement is so rapid and jerky, the brain does not process what the eye reports during this movement – the brain only processes what the eye stops on.  The saccadic movement takes about 5/100ths of a second for each motion.  This means the vision is stuttering and the officer will be seeing things glimpses.

 

 

The Mind – Funnel of Concentration

Now that we have some idea about the complexity of vision, let’s remember the original point – the sense receptor, regardless of which one it is or how it functions, is operating to serve the mind and give the mind the information it needs to help the person survive.  To do this let’s again look at the results of the studies presented in the beginning of this article.

 

Factors in Dr. Artwohl’s study that are related to a “funneled concentration” on a threat would be an intensified sound, tunnel vision, and heighted visual clarity.  These would generally result because the officer is focused on what, to him, is the threatening aspect of the incident.  The office’s mind is directing the sense organs to get as much information as quickly as possible, from something he sees as threatening.  As the officer’s mind focuses on what is perceived to be a threat he gains volumes of information about what he’s focusing on.  But, because he is doing this, the officer pays a very high price.  The price of focusing on something specific is the loss of a lot of other information that may later prove valuable to the officer.  What he is not focused on is suppressed by the sensory systems and the brain.  Because of this, the things that he is not focusing on could literally disappear from his awareness.  For instance, in a life and death encounter, officers who are not focusing on their weapon might not even be able to tell whether or not the weapon was fired.  In Dr. Artwohl’s study, factors that show inattention to what is (at the time) thought to be less relevant are diminished sound, memory loss for part of the event and memory loss for some of your action.  This is the price the officer pays for having a funnel of concentration – some things just get lost because at the time, other things are more important.

 

To illustrate this, focus on the sensations coming from the soles of your feet.  Because you have funneled your concentration on this article, your mind made a decision to ignore the sensations coming from the bottom of your feet.  You cannot remember what your feet reported to you, even two minutes ago.  Yet they are your own feet.  Can you imagine the withering cross-examination you would undergo from an attorney who could not believe that you didn’t know what your own feet felt like?  If you can understand this, you can understand what an officer feels like when he can’t remember what he did or what happened in what is probably one of the most traumatizing and significant events of his life.

 

Therefore, a funnel of concentration, ordered by the mind and obeyed by the senses, results in among other things, both perceptual tunneling and perceptual blockage, as well as the resulting memory problems.  Perceptual tunneling is a term that relates to a narrowing of the perceptual field so a viewer is seeing or hearing only a fragment of the whole perceptual field.  But what he is focused on is very clearly perceived and may (as a consequence of this and his emotional response) be locked clearly in his memory forever.  The term blockage relates to the concept that if a person does not hear or see something because he was not focused or aware of it, it may be blocked from entering his conscious mind and memory.  These problems are normal problems of human attention and perception.  They become more focused and unusual under high stress.

 

 

The Mind – Dissociation

Dr. Artwohl’s research illustrated that 39% of officers involved in deadly force encounters experienced dissociation.  She defines this as the officer having moments when he had a strange sense of detachment, as if the event were a dream or like he was looking at himself from the outside.  Most psychologists who work with officers involved in trauma find dissociation in some portion of the officers.  Dr. Artwohl has finally put a percentage to it for us.

 

Dissociation is also generally recognized as the emotional recoil to a traumatizing event.  It is seen as a psychological defense mechanism.  The person is emotionally shutting down so he does not breakdown under what he’s afraid could be overwhelming trauma – like coming face to face with his own death.  In a more intense format, it involves a temporary paralysis (which Dr. Artwohl found in 7% of the officers studied.)  This occurs particularly in officers who suddenly and dramatically encounter a significantly traumatizing event, and in terms of the awareness spectrum move from the condition white to condition black – panic and paralysis.  If the event last long enough most of these officers recover from their paralysis and react appropriately to the threat.

 

Dissociation is not all bad.  With a well-trained officer, a particular form of it can be good.  It’s good when (in the short term) an officer shuts down and is then able to do what he needs to survive or cope with the trauma.

 

The purpose of good training is to build an officer’s decision making and reaction skills so he can focus on positive, legal and ethical decision-making and effective use of survival skills.  To do this, the officer has to be trained well enough to dissociate enough from the threat, that his well-trained skills can be effectively employed.  For instance, a golfer can never make a great swing if (while swinging) he is simultaneously worried about his bank account.  Likewise, an officer who is focused on losing his life cannot (simultaneously and effectively) be focused on making his weapon work effectively.

 

Dr. Landers, from Arizona State University, simultaneously recorded the brain waves of Olympic shooters and the accuracy of their shots.  He said he was able to predict the accuracy of the shot, not by looking at the target, but by looking at the read out of their brain waves.  The more the shooter was detached, (dissociated) so nothing interfered with their focused, relaxed state of mind, the more accurate the shot was.  The more distracted the shooter was, either with thoughts or feelings, the worse the shot was.  The message from his research is clear – if the officer cannot dissociate or remove his conscious mind from the presence of the lethal threat, his trained, tactical skills can suffer significantly.  I have interviewed officers who have fired six rounds in defense of their life at a subject standing six feet away.  They missed with all six rounds – they were lucky to have survived.  Their inability to dissociate or distance their mind from the threat prevented them from focusing on the skills they needed to survive.

 

Officers may experience a range of dissociative responses.  On one end he withdraws into panic and/or paralysis, hopefully to recover and cope with the situation.  In the middle, he withdraws or shuts down to survive emotionally through the crisis.  He does what he needs to do to be effective and hopefully he successfully copes after it’s all over.  On the other end is the officer who dissociates, shifts into the zone, makes great decisions and performs awesomely and instinctively, even in the face of his own death.  Incidentally, an officer who is emotionally withdrawn, but intently, tactically engaged may experience the same phenomenon – the out of body experience – that is occasionally reported by athletes who are similarly, psychologically engaged.  In this circumstance, the participant has a transitory sense of being so detached that he seems to be watching himself do what he’s doing from outside his body.