Altered Perceptions

It wasn’t until much later that I had time to reflect on the tricks my brain had played. Later, after I’d picked myself up from the ground. After I’d dusted myself off and bandaged the scrape in my elbow. After I’d picked the bits of gravel from the bleeding spot on my left knee. After I’d ascertained that the crying toddler was, in fact, crying from fear and surprise, rather than from injury.

I’d been holding my friend’s daughter while her parents hitched up a travel trailer. It was hot, and she was getting fidgety and restless, and I was concentrating too much on keeping her from wriggling out of my arms and not enough on where I was stepping. And then I put my foot down into a loose patch of sand, and it was all over.

Though I doubt it could have been more than a second or two between when I lost my footing and when we both hit the ground, I remember how slowly it seemed that time was moving. I remember making a conscious decision to tighten my hold on the little girl. I remember making a conscious decision to twist my body around, remember clearly thinking, “you CANNOT land on top of her”. I remember the half-roll I did in the air, a maneuver I could never have normally managed. I remember, just before my left shoulderblade hit the ground, the thought flashed through my head: This is going to hurt, but if you don’t drop Sarah, she’ll be all right.

That curious slowing of time, that stretching of the briefest instant out into what seemed like a much longer interval, is called tachypsychia. If you’re ever in a self-defense situation or other traumatic incident, odds are you’ll experience it too.

I’ve been reading a collected PDF anthology of Massad Ayoob’s popular column, “The Ayoob Files“, from American Handgunner magazine. Mas’s columns are an invaluable source of information about gunflights – involving cops as well as armed citizens – and discussing in depth how they unfold, what worked and didn’t work, and the lessons we can learn from them to help us better prepare if we ever find ourselves in that terrible situation. And one of the things I’ve learned very clearly is this: In times of great stress or trauma, you can’t always trust your perceptions, especially if you aren’t aware they’ll be distorted.

Tachypsychia is thought to be aside effect of the brain’s attempt to assimilate the data needed to stay alive. It’s as though the mind suddenly starts capturing information much more quickly and, like a movie camera run at high speed, the images appear in slow motion when we try to process them. Tachypsychia is a common manifestation of the brain’s “survivial mode” instincts, though not the only one. Tunnel vision, auditory exclusion (literally not hearing extraneous details like gunshots), and mental distortions of time, sequence, spatial relationships and perceptions are all the result of your brain’s trying to provide you the data you need to stay alive.

But there are two places these survival instincts may lead you astray. The first is during the fight itself. Tunnel vision and auditory exclusion may focus you on the threat you’ve perceived, and you may literally be unable to perceive the accomplice lurking out of sight until it’s too late. It’s not that you aren’t aware of what’s going on. To the contrary, you’re hyper-aware, and your brain is trying to manage the flood of sensory information the best it can. But sometimes the only way it can keep up is to delete information it thinks is extraneous. And sometimes it’s wrong. This is why cops and soldiers train (and you should train, too) to consciously “break out” of tunnel vision and force yourself to scan for additional threats.

The other place the altered perceptions of our brain’s stress reactions lead us into trouble is when it comes to dealing with law enforcement. Unfortunately, in the adrenaline-fueled survival mental state, we’re extremely unlikely to be able to accurately answer questions like “how long?” or “how many?” or “how far?” To the police officers,used to dealing with bad guys who are, in fact, guilty of committing crimes, these inconsistencies look a lot like deliberate deception, and good people have ended up needlessly arrested and tried as a result.

This is why Mas, and other experts, strongly encourages that armed citizens involved in defensive encounters refrain from making a detailed statement or answering questions about specifics until at least 24 – and preferably more like 72 – hours has elapsed from the time of the incident. It seems that as time passes, and as the adrenaline cocktail fades from our system, our memories become clearer and less tangled, and details of time, space and sequence can be communicated clearly and accurately.

That’s not to say you should “shut up and say nothing” to the police after a defensive encounter. I’ve written before about what to say, and why to say it, after a self-defense encounter. But while you’re still in the immediate aftermath of the incident, when your perceptions are still muddled, you simply cannot be a good witness. The simple fact is that, in the immediate aftermath of a stressful or traumatic situation, you cannot possibly be a good, or accurate witness.

The situation I described at the beginning of this post bore that lesson out for me. As the hours passed and the endorphin high faded, my brain was able to make sense of the panicked misperceptions of my survival response. How far I’d fallen, how long it took to land, the sequence of actions I was able to take in that few seconds, all became clearer. But had you asked me about them immediately following my fall, I doubt my responses would have been coherent.

We cannot really fully avoid these biologically-programmed responses, even if we’re aware of them. But by being aware, we’ll know what to expect, and we’ll know the limits of our perceptions in the aftermath of a survival situation. And knowing what to expect, we’ll be better equipped to respond if and when we find ourselves in a crisis situation.

How about you? Have you experienced any of these altered mental states during a time of extreme crisis or stress? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Photo credit: stock.xchng


  1. Yes indeed, more than once. The worst was the night my husband suffered a heart attack. Even being a nurse did not spare me the distortions and panic as I struggled to REMEMBER and carry out the CPR I had trained for over a number of years. It seemed like hours before the ambulance and EMTs arrived, and I remember sitting on the floor in the living room trying to figure out what to do… and a little while later realizing that the ambulance was gone and that I needed to drive the 40 miles to the hospital. I had nobody to call to take me, and that drive was one of the most surreal experiences. I had lived in that valley for 35 years, yet I had to think hard about which direction to go… I have no idea what my performance was like in the actual driving, and I was not completely rational for at least 24 hours after that. I learned he was dead when I got there, which only added to the trauma, and I remember little about it except trying to drive back home in the dark and a pouring rain, not sure I’d be able to get there simply because I was lost inside my own mind, seeing and understanding little of anything else. Good thing the road was very little traveled at that hour.

    I’m very grateful I had no need to defend myself at that point. It simply would not likely have been successful.

    • Barefoot in MN says:

      MamaLiberty, I’m so sorry for that experience you had.
      …………………….& yet that is another of the reasons I carry: to defend people who might need it & be unable to manage it themselves, for whatever reason.
      May you have peace.

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