The importance of learning to engage our executive function when under duress is paramount to our overall survival, especially when we are attacked with lethal force. It is crucial when the enemy is shooting at us or assailing us with edged weapons to remain cool and calm under such processing pressure. It is even more important that we remain cool, calm and collected when there is a potential lethal force, but which has not yet expressed itself, least we shoot someone who doesn’t need shot. To merely allow ourselves to knee-jerk to our baser, paleomammalian survival instincts under the potential of a threat, leads to detrimental outcomes that are not situationally accurate and correct (Shelby, 2016).
With proper Stress Exposure Training (SET), the correctly ingrained cognitive skills and the mental attitude well-conditioned for such circumstances, we provide us the skills needed to respond to lethal threats correctly. Through learning engaging such disciplined and conditioned executive cognitive functions, such as target discrimination, moving to cover, offering verbal commands, and utilizing accurate threat assessments, we are less likely to kill innocents and take out the real threats. We don’t have to merely react like hammers to a perceived nail (lethal threat), potentially killing someone who really is no threat at all (Cozolino, 2014, 2010; Driskell, Salas, Johnston & Wollert, 2008; Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Sharps, 2010; Staal, Bolton, Yaroush & Bourne, 2008).
It is irresponsible and very incorrect for professional trainers to excuse away the shootings of people who are not real threats, as something due to uncontrollable and natural human reactions under duress. Law enforcement officers, soldiers and Marines who shoot and kill people who are imagined threats, but who have not been confirmed as such, kill innocent people because of extremely poor preparation and training. These individuals need the best training science and bureaucracies hiring them can afford. Without this proper training, these men and women in these professions will merely default to baser, inappropriate, instinctive paleomammalian survival actions. The untrained and poorly selected military and law enforcement personnel will default to this rapid (50milliseconds from perceived threat to physical, knee-jerk, instinctive reaction because they really do not anything else. Under dire duress of lethal force all humans default to what they know best (Cozolino, 2014; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Shelby, Singleton & Fosi, 2016; Sharps, 2010).
Defaulting to this baser survival mechanism relies on bottom-up processing, where the amygdala perceives information as matching previous information that has been stored as dangerous. Our implicit memories are a woven fabric of many past experience residues that create negatively biased templates for individual survival. This rapid identification process occurs under over consciousness, within 50 milliseconds of threat recognition. If the person simply goes with this and reacts to this potentially perceived threat without verifying that it is a threat, the person’s actions can be catastrophically incorrect. In addition, if the Marine, soldier or LEO is looking for a gun, knife or other weapon, being in the highly aroused sympathetic state, said individual is more likely to identify an object in the hand as that weapon being searched for (Cozolino, 2014; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Selby, et al, 2016; Sharps, 2010).
Memory initially sees what we are looking at, with the executive functioning used to verify what we think we see. In essence, when we are searching for a specific item for which we know how it looks. Being an item of danger—gun or knife, the amygdala also knows. Under threat arousal, when we see something in the hand of our suspect, our immediate assessment from the amygdala may be “Gun!” or “Knife!” or “Club!,” because that is what we are looking for. It is our executive functioning that then looks more closely to discriminate what we are looking at. It is then we can actually see what we are looking at via our long-term memory, “Oh, no, that is not a gun. It is an iPhone,” or “Yes, that is a Glock handgun.” The amygdala sees “GUN!” simply because that is what we are looking for under a threat response. There is something in that subject’s hand—and we are hardwired to see false positives or tigers in the grass when the wind blows (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Selby, et al, 2016).
We must learn to be mindful of ourselves in this potential threat, of what is transpiring and what may happen next. Any soldier, Marine, LEO or human entity properly trained, can engage this mindfulness under the duress of lethal force. And they must if they want to keep their executive functions in control of their actions to potential threats. We want to deliberately focus on the confidence and efficacy of their training, and to remain mindful of what is actually unfolding—both within us and outside our skin. If one feels capable of handling lethal force threats and has properly trained to manage them, he or she will "feel safer," and will respond more accurately to the need of the circumstance (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010, Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Sharps, 2010; Staal, et al, 2008).
Self-efficacy, leading to “feeling safer,” can be developed through proper stress exposure training, mindfulness training and correct mind-set training, i.e., how we feel about ourselves in this "battle for our lives." This mindful feeling of "safety under duress," is about the efficacy we have in our own abilities to hand this situation. This "feeling" of efficacy controls the brain's hardwired tendency to look for and over-react to threats in a mindless fashion. This focus of efficacy helps prevent us from knee-jerking into being a blunt hammer, blindly pounding away at imagined slights and dangers over verified threats (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010, Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Sharps, 2010; Staal, et al, 2008).
Simple physical tasks that we can learn to do in response to a fear-startle, will help us keep our mindset in the correct focus. This begins with a simple, forceful exhale when we are startled. This forceful exhale becomes a conditioned response to the "Oh S&%T!” startle we feel. We then allow that forceful exhale to connect to another cue, which becomes a conditioned response, allowing us to relax our eyebrows, lips, shoulders and neck in a wave of action. From this exhale and upper body relaxation, we begin to belly-breathe. We continue to focus on keeping belly breathing, as we are mindful of the fear response within us. Fear is nothing more than our psychophysiology preparing us to manage a danger. If the threat begins shooting at us or attacking us with that blade, we are now better prepared to appropriately counter these lethal assaults immediately and not panic (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010, Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Sharps, 2010; Staal, et al, 2008).
It sounds like the above physical skills would take long time to accomplish under duress of a threat. But as conditioned responses, using our top-down executive functioning to control, we can actually learn to cue off of threats within 500 milliseconds of initiation. Granted, it is not as fast and the bottom-up processing time, initiated by the amygdala in 50 milliseconds. But the probability of experiencing a false positive cognitive error in those 50 milliseconds, leading us to kill something that doesn’t need killing, is also much greater (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010, Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Sharps, 2010; Selby, et al, 2016; Staal, et al, 2008).
Individuals in the infantry, SWAT, SpecOps, and law enforcement professions, must learn to properly manage their fear-arousals so as to not simply knee-jerk react out of fear to startle, or to a potential threat, before such threats are actually confirmed as lethal. If such personnel worry more about their person safety than about engaging their daily missions, they do not possess the “right stuff” to perform their dangerous duties. Some people simply have no business in these professions, and when their genetic predisposition and early social development have not instituted a strong ability and correct skills to control their fear-response to potential threats, they would do better to find a different professional occupation (Cozolino, 2014; Mastroianni, Palmer, Penetar & Tepe, 2011).
Our Executive Functions (top-down thinking) improve its circuitry through correct repetitions and training, especially with regular stress exposure training and successful, real world experience. The more correctly conditioned we develop these verified responses to real threats, we start shaving off milliseconds here and there from identification through verification and actions taken. This is why DELTA force and SWAT operators rarely knee jerk to violent chaos, but engage cool, calm, and controlled target discrimination, killing only those who need killed (Cozolino, 2014, 2012; Klein, 2013; Mastroianni et al, 2011).
In emergency situations, such as lethal force encounters, we need to learn to talk to ourselves to remain calm and do what we know to do, in accordance to past, successful experiences, and in tune with our specific SET for such scenarios. Our brain has stored the familiarity templates in our procedural memories, but we need our Executive Functioning to access and use them. We must keep our Executive Functions engaged in order that we cognitively and physically prevail in this vicious and chaotic threat. Being mindful of our very thoughts, of our body, its sensations and tensions, while verifying, all threats correctly, allows us to make the correct decisions and subsequent actions. Individual strength, after all, in combat comes from owning the situationally correct, mental templates of prearranged and established clear cut actions, sustained over time through experience and training. For those who say there is no time for this, have never received the proper training, nor do they understand how the brain works under such duress. There is time, and we must make sure high risk professionals get the training they need or innocents will continue dying, unnecessarily (Cozolino, 2014; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Driskell, et al, 2008).
The more we can encourage the students who come to use for professional training, to be ever mindful of what they are doing in training, teaching them to engage positive self-talk throughout their drills, guiding them to keep breathing, staying relaxed, sustaining good stances and positions, to see their enemy targets (hard focus), alien their weapons to the threat, aiming with their bodies, letting the gun tell them what it needs in order to keep shooting when we must shoot (Reload? Immediate Action? Malfunctions Clearing?), and then do that, we are teaching them to be less like hammers, and behave more like precision tools attuned to the moment (Driskell, et al, 2008).
Cozolino, L. (2008). The healthy aging brain: Sustaining attachment, attaining wisdom. New York: W.W. Norton.
Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachments and the developing social brain. New York: W.W. Norton.
Cozolino, L. (2010). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain. New York: W.W. Norton.
Driskell, J.E., Salas, E., Johnston, J.H. & Wollert, T.N. (2008). Stress exposure training: An event-based approach. In P.A. Hancock & J.L. Szalma (Eds.), Performance under stress (pp. 271–286). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Klein, G. (2013). Seeing what others don’t: The remarkable ways we gain insights. New York: Public Affairs.
Mastroianni, G., Palmer, B., Penetar, D. & Tepe, V. (2011). A warrior’s guide to psychology and performance: What you should know about yourself and others. Washington, DC: Potomic Books.
Matthews, M. (2012). Cognitive and non-cognitive factors in soldier performance. In J.H. Laurence & M.D. Matthews (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of military psychology (pp. 197–217). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McNeil, J.A. & Morgan, C.A. (2010). Cognition and decision making in extreme environments. In C.H. Kennedy & J.L. Moore (Eds.), Military neuropsychology (pp. 361–382). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Panksepp, J. & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York: W.W. Norton.
Selby, N., Singleton, B. & Flosi, E. (2016). In context: Understanding police killings of unarmed civilians. St. Augustine, FL: Contextual Press.
Sharps, M.J. (2010). Processing under pressure: Stress, memory and decision-making in law enforcement. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law Publications.
Staal, M.A., Bolton, A.E., Yaroush, R.A. & Bourne, L.E. (2008). Cognitive performance and resilience to stress. In B.J. Lukey & V. Tepe (Eds.), Biobehavioral resilience to stress (pp. 259–299). Boca Raton: CRC Press.