Have you ever had the hairs on the back of your neck stand up for no apparent reason? Of course you have, it happens to all law enforcement officers. Something begins to churn in your gut, creating that uncomfortable feeling and you immediately start scanning the area, looking for threats. Even when you satisfy yourself that there are no pending threats, that wary feeling lingers.
The subconscious brain houses an amazingly complex pattern recognition system that is constantly monitoring the environment. I refer to the subconscious brain as the back-channel system because it processes information below your level of awareness – i.e., it’s responsible for all of the stuff being broadcast over the back-channels that you are not consciously tuned to and therefore not aware of. The on-channel system, on the other hand, processes what you are consciously aware of and paying attention to.
Located in your back-channel are brain structures that detect and signal danger. These structures use your sensory systems to gather information from the environment and then compare that information to stored patterns and expectations. A green garden hose laying in the grass trips the danger alarm in the back-channel of your brain because it matches the pattern of a snake winding through the grass. That danger signal jumpstarts your fight-or-flight system so that you can deal with the threat. The on-channel system may then override the misperception and correctly identify the object as a garden hose, but because of the initial back-channel assessment, you will be jacked-up for a while. Once the object in the grass is identified as a garden hose, the back-channel registers that information and adjusts expectations so that you are not frightened every time you pass by that particular garden hose.
Benefit: Always assuming danger aids in your survival
Wouldn’t it be easier if the back-channel simply identified the garden hose as a garden hose from the start? That seems like a perfect solution until you take a closer look at how these systems work. Your brain developed these two systems for a reason: the back-channel processes information using minimal resources to give a rapid assessment – a quick and dirty guess as to whether the object is a threat; the on-channel takes the extra time and uses the additional resources needed to accurately identify the object. It’s the on-channel’s job to confirm or disprove the signaling of the back-channel.
The initial, rapid assessment by the back-channel is necessary for safety reasons (if something is flying towards your head, ducking is more important than recognizing), while the slower, more detailed processing of the on-channel helps you identify, recognize, comprehend, and decide. If that quick, initial, rough idea in the back-channel creates a mismatch with what is expected, the alarm bells will sound. The heart will pump a massive amount of blood to the large muscles, adrenalin will be released into the bloodstream, and a host of other physiological changes meant to help you run away from or fight the threat will be kicked into high gear.
The patterns the back-channel uses for comparison are based on what can harm you. The fact that the back-channel uses safety patterns increases your chance of survival. Here’s another way to think about it: what would be the benefit of a quick, initial assessment of whether an item in the environment is a piece of cake or a cookie? There is no urgency needed for that type of analysis, so the back-channel doesn’t spend its time or energy on such things. Threats can harm or kill you, so urgency is needed to process information that may contain danger.
The same applies when you are on duty. As you approach a stopped vehicle, your back-channel may pick-up an unpredicted pattern and sound the alarm bells. Maybe it detected a faint, unexpected noise or glimpsed the outline of a threatening object on the backseat of the vehicle. Without your initial awareness of the danger, your back-channel alerts you. Isn’t the back-channel system awesome? Has your back-channel – your gut feeling – ever saved your life? It has saved the lives of many law enforcement officers. You should be thankful for and take advantage of the dual system your brain has created to keep you safe and help you survive.
Problem: Assuming danger can lead to misperceptions, misidentifications, and errors in judgement
We have established that the back-channel always assumes danger and that doing so aids in your survival. That’s the good news. But there is a potential problem tied to how the system works: the intricate workings of the back-channel and on-channel systems were developed to help you survive; but as an officer of the law, you must also consider the safety and well-being of the general public.
Given the fact that you must consider the safety of others, stress surrounding an incident is increased. Let’s say you have responded to a call and are face-to-face with a subject that may be armed. There are people in the area, which greatly concerns you. You order everyone to back away as you deal with the subject. With one hand resting on your firearm and the other held up in front of you, towards the subject, you order him to show his hands. Instead, he reaches for his waistband. In a flash your weapon is drawn, and now with even greater urgency you order him to show his hands.
What are your options at this point? Here are three you may consider: (1) you rapidly back-peddle, retreating from the area to a position of cover where you can reassess and give additional orders to the subject and others in the area; (2) you simply freeze, unable to move or respond; or (3) you use your firearm to quickly disable the threat before the subject can harm you or others.
I’m sure you have already guessed where this is going. In this hypothetical example, the subject is reaching into his pocket to pull out his wallet for identification. Your back-channel registers the event as a threat – it always assumes danger, remember? In the same way that the “snake” jumpstarted your fight-or-flight system, the subject reaching for his waistband kicks your physiological system into high gear. It is now up to the on-channel system to confirm or override the back-channel’s initial assessment of a threat.
In this example, survival stress coupled with the magnitude of the situation have robbed the on-channel system of the time and resources needed to make the correct call. Is it a gun or a wallet? The back-channel will always say “gun,” the brain is hardwired to make that initial leap. In fact, that’s the leap to judgement most people want their back-channel to make in order to aid in survival. But is that an accurate assessment? You are also responsible for the safety of the subject if he is not an immediate threat to you or others. Too often in situations like this there just simply isn’t enough time or neural resources available to allow the on-channel system to weigh in before you react.
If your response was option three in this example – to use your weapon to quickly disable the threat – the result is a mistake-of-fact shooting. A subject that was not posing an immediate threat was injured or killed. In your professional career, you want to avoid that outcome if possible.
Solution: Slow down and preplan your actions
You need a plan to nip the problem before it blooms. Changing how the system works isn’t an option, the on-channel and back-channel systems work in synchrony as they are genetically hardwired to do. You cannot change this basic brain principle, and you shouldn’t want to. The back-channel functions in a way to help you survive; that’s a good thing. But the back-channel can also create misperceptions, misidentifications, and errors in judgement, especially during stressful encounters under time pressure.
Here’s your plan: slow down, stay in control, and preplan your actions.
To avoid potential problems that result from back-channel misperceptions during a critical incident, you need to understand that time is a precious commodity. Buying some extra time before reacting to an event allows the on-channel system to process information at the scene. If the on-channel system then confirms the threat, you are now in a position to take action rather than react.
Taking action during a critical incident is much preferred to simply reacting. Taking action means that you have a plan in place and that you made the decision, based on the circumstances, to act on that plan. Time is the underlying commodity that allows you to preplan and take action. To make sure that you don’t misunderstand this point, now may be a good time to differentiate between slowing down and hesitating. Slowing down is a conscious decision based on gaining a tactical advantage; hesitation is different. Hesitation can result from fear, indecisiveness, or uncertainty, none of which give you a tactical advantage. During a critical incident, don’t hesitate. Your goal is to deal with threats in a professional manner with a mindset that keeps you and others safe. Slowing down so that your on-channel processes information and allow you to take action is your best option.
Your mind is your most valuable weapon. Staying in control is imperative. Understanding that your back-channel always assumes danger is something you should keep in mind and plan for. When approaching an incident, slow down, stay in control, and preplan your actions. If you are left with no choice and must take quick action, then use all of your strength, knowledge, and training to defeat the threat without hesitation.
Until the next article in the Brain Principles series, stay safe and professional.
Jonathan Page, PhD is a cognitive neuroscientist and President of the Cognitive Command Group. For more than a decade, Jon has been researching and studying human perception and action. His research on physiological responses to stress, and how stress influences behavior, led him to pursue new and more effective ways for law enforcement officers to manage stress and stressful situations. The knowledge and data that Jon acquired in the laboratory and while collaborating in field research with law enforcement and military agencies in the US and abroad provided him with the information he needed to develop Cognitive Command Training™. C2 Training is a new instructional methodology that makes training more efficient and more effective by building automatic patterns of behaviors in the subconscious to help officers maintain control of their cognitive functions. Being in Cognitive Command enables officers to systematically assess their environment, de-escalate, make better use of force decisions, and remain calm during critical incidents. Jon has published his findings in professional scientific and law enforcement journals and presents at conferences and delivers trainings. You can reach Dr. Page at- firstname.lastname@example.org.