Altered Perceptions from Sensory Input During Critical Incidents
by Jerry Webb
I have found that when facing death or harm, and when involved in (or witnessing) critical incidents, humans experience altered perceptions. Part of the phenomenon is the result of our life experience, but most of it is simply how we are wired and is beyond our control.
Each of the senses is prone to increased, decreased or even false perceptions. The most common and understood altered perceptions during a critical incident are: the elimination of--or greatly reduced--sensory perception, such as auditory exclusion; and the greatly enhanced sensory perceptions, such as tunnel vision where the individual can see every detail of the threat (while limiting peripheral vision).
There is also the tendency of the human brain to "fill in the gaps" by automatically providing missing information in order to make sense of conflicting or partial sensory input. In such cases the person will swear they saw or heard something that did not happen, but they are not lying. Their brain has provided them with information that in addition to the sensory input is as real as any other thing they "know" happened.
All of the senses are subject to altered perception. Some, all or none of the senses may be altered, and the results will be different from person to person, and even incident to incident for an individual! Below I have listed the most common altered sensory perceptions and some examples.
HEARING: it is common for our hearing to seem super powerful or muted during a critical incident. In shootings gunfire has not caused pain or ringing in my ears. As impossible as it seems, the sensitivity is increased and reduced at the same time in some cases! I remember the gunshots being muffled or "far away", but I could hear the gravel under my boots and the bad guy breathing. Every time that I was trying to be undetected by the bad guy in a dangerous situation, my own movements always seemed to be really loud.
SIGHT: I have light-sensitive eyes. While I have great night vision, bright daylight hurts my eyes and I always wear sunglasses. I have not noticed light sensitivity during critical incidents. I think tunnel vision is the most common altered visual perception, but I remember seeing every detail of the threat, as if my vision was somehow better. The sense of sight also seems the most likely victim of the "fill in the gaps" altered perception phenomenon. On the other hand, the old adage that "you have to see it to believe it" is no longer valid, and the progress of modern technology makes us less likely to believe what we see. We are now used to questioning what we see, and this creeps into our cognitive reasoning to the degree that in retrospect we are not sure what we saw.
TASTE: It is true that during a life threatening moment you will have a funny taste in your mouth. Most describe it as metallic, but in any event it is an altered perception of taste where there is none.
FEEL/TOUCH: Pain, heat and cold are altered or eliminated during life and death conflict. The common explanation of adrenaline dump is likely a reason for the lack of pain. But in some cases after everything was over I was cold and shivering, and in one case I got hot and was sweating even though it was winter. I have no real explanation for that. I do vividly recall the sudden rush of pain when the conflict was over: both times that my nose was broken I did not feel any pain at all during the fight, but afterward, man I was throbbing! Those who have been shot often say they initially did not know they were hit by a bullet. Fortunately I haven't tried that yet!
SMELL: Boy is this a weird thing. You have read about the smell of fear, and there is such a thing in my opinion. One of the most vivid things in my memory is smell, and in every case of close quarters struggle I can remember the smell of the badguy--yuck! I believe that during critical incidents the senses are all enhanced, including smell. As a matter of fact, in my early career I quit drinking beer for some time because it brought back feelings of fighting drunks at work. It seems weird to me that the sense of smell is so powerfully attached to good and bad memories, but it is.
TIME: This is a pretty consistent perception. Whenever I have been in a really bad situation, time slows way down - one minute seems like ten.
LOSS OF BODY CONTROL: A common example of this is evacuation of the bowels in anticipation of impact. Frequently a person who loses control of their car will crap their pants. This is one way the body protects itself. There are also other ways the body over-rides the brain: most people close their eyes and raise their hands involuntarily to protect their face prior to an impact. A voluntary act may be so "switched on" that it becomes involuntary and you cannot stop it: I remember fighting a guy so big and so drunk that he shrugged off every attack. We rolled around fighting for almost ten minutes, at 3am, in the middle of a busy freeway. I had absolutely no fear of the bad guy, but we were almost struck by passing traffic several times, and that scared me. I kept seeing cars stop and gawk, then leave - that made me mad. Then I thought about how his guts would end up in my coffin when they shoveled us off the freeway, and that REALLY MADE ME MAD! By then I had one handcuff on him and gripped the other cuff with my left hand, and his long pony tail in my right hand. I was striking him with my knees and feet. When the other cops finally arrived, they kept saying "Let go Jerry!" but I could not. I had gotten a death grip on him with both hands and literally could not let go. They had to pry my hands off him, and then I attacked him again. The supervisor on scene was an accomplished SWAT man, and recognized what was happening. He had me taken away and the prisoner processed by other cops. Most people have never "lost control" of themselves, but that is pretty scary.
THE "SIXTH SENSE": Everyone has intuition. I am pretty good at manipulating people and thinking on my feet. Most good cops develop the ability to "read" people, and some can even predict what a bad guy will do most of the time. While I cannot read minds or predict the future, in critical and life threatening situations I have often felt a premonition. Many times I "sensed" danger before it revealed itself. I have no real explanation of such feelings or instincts. I cannot take credit for some of my victories and danger avoidance, and as a man of faith, I chalk it up to God or a guardian angel. Whatever that sixth sense is, I have felt it many times and it has served me well.
Hopefully some of this babbling will help you understand the total unpredictability of a lethal force struggle, and how little control you will have over directing the ultimate outcome. If not that, then maybe you were entertained by my own adventures. The bottom line is that you must be very good or very lucky to win. I don't trust luck very much. Therefore I prepare to control what little I can if the bad thing happens.