Perception Under Pressure
Survival situations in police work change their perceptual frames.
Posted Feb 13, 2020
Former homicide detective Lee Lofland found himself in a shoot-out with an armed robber, who had gotten out of a car and positioned himself at the rear. Lofland could see his head. Lofland shot through the window, wounding the robber. Another officer fired a shotgun nearby. Lofland experienced the loud, close-up explosion as an altered state.
“Time nearly stopped,” he said. “It was surreal, like I actually had time to look around before reacting to the gunshot. I saw my partners yelling, their mouths opening and closing slowly. Lazy puffs of blue-black smoke drifted upward from their gun barrels. I saw a dog barking to my right, its head lifting with each yap, and droplets of spittle dotted the air around its face.”
He saw these things, but didn’t hear them. He later learned that he’d experienced auditory exclusion, an involuntary engagement during high stress of a switch to slow motion, with sounds shut off. He describes this experience on his blog about police insights for writers, and he generously agreed to let me reproduce some of it here. I’m adding details from cognitive psychology about the mechanisms of attention.
It’s no surprise that our brain processes situations for an external threat so we can react quickly to save ourselves. The brain is self-protective, but it’s also limited in terms of how much attention it can allocate to any given stimulus. As humans, we’re hardwired to focus, and we need to see essential things rather than everything.
During ordinary experience, neurons process incoming information more or less uniformly but with little depth. The brain assigns coding resources to what we need to hear, see, smell, etc. to get us through our day. When we must pay attention, neural activity becomes biased toward this focus and induces stronger activity in those neurons that encode the information; as these neurons increase their firing, the brain dampens neuronal activity that codes for other things. In other words, there’s only so much electricity to go around. When one light bulb brightens, others go dim.
The dim parts cannot attend to anything else, so our narrowed focus filters out things that might be right in front of us. This is called attentional blink or inattentional blindness. It can affect any of the senses, as Lofland notes.
He continues, describing the issues for police officers:
“When faced with danger, our bodies automatically increase the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which produces an uptick in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, pupil size, perspiration, and muscle tension. Blood flow to the brain, heart, and large muscles is accordingly increased. However, fine motor skills that require hand/eye coordination begin to deteriorate. This decrease in the functionality of fine motor skills allows the continuation of the more effective (at the time) gross motor skills that help when running or fighting.”
He lists several key aspects from his research:
- Optical affinity – an increased ability to see things at 20 feet and beyond while closer objects may seem blurry, if seen at all. The same is true for the near shutdown of peripheral vision, due to vasoconstriction of blood vessels.
- Perceptions are often distorted, such as the ability to correctly perceive a danger.
- Sounds are processed by the brain faster than what we see.
- Motion is recognized faster than color, and shape is slowest of all the sights processed. Yellow is the color we identify the fastest, with dark colors the slowest.
- Furtive movement – During stressful encounters, furtive movements like the motion of a hand holding an object that resembles a firearm, are difficult to perceive accurately.
Acute vision at closer distances decreases, sounds dim, and adrenaline and heart rate rise. As Lofland puts it in his blog's title: sound is perceived before sight, motion before color, and color before shape. “These differences can and do greatly affect how an officer perceives and processes what’s unfolding in real time,” he says, “and, those perceptions will definitely affect and/or control the officer’s response(s).”
He contrasts his experience of a shooting incident with “armchair cop experts” who “chime in after the fact with uninformed, misinformed, social-media-educated, and inexperienced ‘cops are too quick to shoot’ comments.”
Officers are trained to stay and face a threat (not flee), but they can't control automatic body systems. Under stress, our brain hijacks the slower thinking processes as it decides how to allocate coding resources. This influences how we perceive and process a situation.
“A man suddenly pulling a dark object from his pocket after repeatedly [being told] to not put his hands in his pocket, [and] matching the description of a guy who’d just shot and killed four people… well, our minds are telling us he’s going for a gun. If the object he brings from his pocket is dark, such as a cellphone, a vaping pen that looks like a gun barrel, especially when held like a gun and pointed at officers, a BB gun that’s nearly identical to the officer’s duty weapon, or even a bare hand that comes up and out of pocket rapidly, and the movement is in contrast to the officer’s direction… and it all occurs within a split second, well…”
In short, those who evaluate such situations from within a calm frame, when perceptual coding is normal, cannot adequately assess what might have occurred to those operating in an altered state. Although some officers might be quicker than others to the draw or less able to think under pressure, situations that threaten survival will inevitably involve perceptual shifts.
Lofland’s blog for writers (and others) on the inside world of a homicide cop provides valuable insights like this. He also offers writers the chance to learn from experts and experience a range of situations at an annual conference held at a police training facility.
The Writers’ Police Academy: MurderCon uses actual law enforcement, forensics, fire, and EMS equipment. Across two and a half days, top federal, state, local law enforcement and forensics experts teach multiple workshops so writers can get the relevant details of their novels right. I was involved with the conference for a decade, myself, teaching forensic psychology. As a participant, I got to shoot weapons, enter a house with a SWAT team, exhume a “body,” learn self-defense techniques, talk to dog handlers, and experience perceptual changes like those mentioned above.
Lofland, L. (2020) An officer’s perception: Sound before sight, motion before color, and color before shape. https://www.leelofland.com/an-officers-perception-sound-before-sight-motion-before-color-and-color-before-shape/
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
Dehaene, S. (2020). How we learn. Viking.
Macknik, Stephen, Martinz-Conde, Susanna, and Blakeslee, Sandra. (2010). Sleights of mind: What the meuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions. Henry Holt & Co.