PREBRIEF: This article was written initially for my police audience but it applies to everyone in public safety, security, executive protection, and yes, even regular people who don’t move towards danger as part of their occupation.
Some of the tone and language from the article is directed at police officers, but if you’re on Linkedin and following me, then you’re smart enough to understand the message.
This is not a criticism of any martial art. This is an article about the amazing human mind and body and our biological airbag!
Enjoy, and please share and comment if some of the ideas made you rethink training for sudden violence.
When Brian Dalton was attacked his body’s instinctive survival system bypassed his thinking brain and deployed human nature’s airbag: the Startle-flinch response.
IMO it helped save his life.
The startle-flinch response deploys like a biological airbag, expanding in a sudden incident to create space between you and the danger.
In Brian’s fight, the flinch response expanded as nature designed it. It bought him time, created space between him and the threat and allowed his mind to catch up to what was happening and ultimately get to his sidearm.
Watch this short video. It slowly demos and explains this principle and shows video from the bodycam of Officer Dalton. Then, if you want to learn more about how the flinch can play a role in your safety, continue reading the article.
Physiology vs. Physicality
The human brain and neuroscience can play a huge role in your training and subsequently your safety.
Everyone should learn more about how physiology, fear, and physics can play a huge role in how you navigate violence.
- When a violent stimulus is introduced too quickly the body’s survival system hijacks executive function.
- The typical psychological response is to protect the head and then push away danger.
- Fingers are splayed if the hands are empty and the forearms are outside ninety degrees from the elbow.
- The startle-flinch is hardwired into you.
When our situational awareness is compromised we must rely on instinct, intuition, and psychology. Think of your startle-flinch response as the equivalent of your “backup” – it’s the backup to your DT, your complex motor skills.
Letting Go Isn’t Easy
How many of you noticed the summons floating through the frame long after the attack?
Rewatch if you missed it.
Two key points: even though officer Dalton knew he was in a fight for his life, physiology had already intervened and was pushing away the danger. Dalton knew he had to get to his weapon as he was being stabbed, the whole time he was still holding the summons.
This is another vital element to understanding physiology and neuroscience: If you are holding something in your hands, your flinch response via the crossed extensors will cause you to tighten around that object. This is vital when seconds count. It could be the door frame of a suspect’s car, their clothing, your flashlight, or in this case the summons (again, watch it drop in slow motion long after the fight started).
💡Understanding why allows you to recognize it sooner and fix it.
I can’t emphasize this point’s importance to your ‘future’ safety. In a future encounter, you will have an object like your flashlight in your hand and it might be your dominant hand that you need to transition your weapon. You may pull a suspect out of the car when he launches an attack. You will flinch and your grip will tighten around whatever you’re holding, like the suspect’s jacket and arm. That grip tightening can delay or interfere with your next action.
Now that you understand this, intelligently build these ‘physiological malfunctions’ into training.
Violence Doesn’t Care
Sorry. It doesn’t.
In 1980 I began doing scenario training. We would run scenario seminars monthly. About 7 years into this, I observed how this weird but intuitive movement of pushing away the attacker seemed to mess up most attacks and interrupted the attacker’s flow. It was an ugly moment. But it often appeared out of nowhere. This movement of course is the ‘startle-flinch’ response.
Here was my next and more important observation:
I noticed how ‘everyone‘ flinched regardless of their training, experience, or background. WTF?
After studying this I concluded that it was the stimulus (the aggression of the attack) that triggered the flinch – the skill of the defender wasn’t really a factor if the attack was sudden and close.
The big reframe was built around the ‘action vs reaction’ model
In law enforcement, the phrase “Action is faster than reaction” is often used in training.
How is this logic applied to officer survival research?
Consider this: If action is faster than reaction – which is accurate – the bad guy is always ‘action’ in an ambush. That means the way most train for violence isn’t congruent with psychics or psychology.
Now, this can get very deep, but the gist of it is that we need physiology to assist us during sudden attacks.
Here’s how: I began analyzing the startle-flinch and its potential role in personal defense response in the late 80s and in 1988 wrote this thesis statement:
- “What does your body do prior to any training?
- Does that movement have a protective response?
- If yes, then why aren’t we integrating this into all our training?”
In short: When a stimulus is introduced too quickly the human body flinches. This is a fact. Why not integrate an instinctive response into your training? It can only make you safer.
In other words, had Brian Dalton brought his support hand to his sternum as he did a close-quarter draw, this fight might’ve had a very different outcome.
Friends, I’ve been studying self-defense for over 50 years. I wrestled, boxed, and studied many martial arts and after one of my students lost a fight I thought I had prepared him for, I switched my entire approach to only looking at violence through the eyes of the predator.
This challenged so many assumptions about how we should train. It spawned an entire reframe for me and my students. It forced me to look deeper into psychology and neuroscience. I spent decades researching this trying to figure out a reliable system that could make anyone safer sooner.
After 40+ years of studying violence, fear, and aggression, I submit this to you:
If you had the choice, you’d always want backup, right? Well, the ‘startle-flinch’ is your body’s biological backup system!
Learn to weaponize your startle-flinch now because when sudden violence erupts, your hands and forearms are going to be what’s between you and the bad guy.