The Brain,…Stress,…..and Human Perception

Some interesting facts about our sensory perception in times of stress.

In today’s excerpt – in moments of extreme duress, such as that which police experience during a shooting, human perception alters radically:
“Over a period of five years, [researcher Alexis] Artwohl gave hundreds of police officers a written survey to fill out about their shooting experiences. Her
findings were remarkable: virtually all of the officers reported experiencing at least one major perceptual distortion. Most experienced several. For some, time moved in slow motion. For others, it sped up. Sounds intensified or disappeared altogether. Actions seemed to happen without conscious control. The mind played tricks. One officer vividly remembered seeing his partner ‘go down in a spray of blood,’ only to find him unharmed a moment later. Another believed a suspect had shot at him ‘from down a long dark hallway about forty feet long’; revisiting the scene a day later, he found to his surprise that the suspect ‘had actually been only about five feet in front of [him] in an open
room.’ Wrote one cop in a particularly strange anecdote, ‘During a violent shoot-out I looked over … and was puzzled to see beer cans slowly floating through the air past my face. What was even more puzzling was that they had the word Federal printed on the bottom. They turned out to be the shell casings ejected by the officer who was firing next to me.’ …
“The single distortion under fire that Artwohl heard about most, with a full 84 percent of the officers reporting it, was diminished hearing.
“The brain’s tendency to steer its resources into visually zeroing in on the threat also explains the second most common perceptual distortion under fire. Tunnel vision, reported by 79 percent of Artwohl’s officers, occurs when the mind locks on to a target or threat to the exclusion of all peripheral information.
“According to Artwohl’s findings, the warping of reality under extreme stress often ventures into even weirder territory. For 62 percent of the officers she surveyed, time seemed to lurch into slow motion during their life-threatening encounter – a perceptual oddity frequently echoed in victims’ accounts of emergencies like car crashes.
The truth, psychologists believe, is that it’s really our memory of the event that unfolds at the pace of molasses; during an intensely fear-provoking experience, the amygdala etches such a robustly detailed representation into the mind that in retrospect it seems that everything transpired slowly. Memories, after all, are notoriously unreliable, especially after an emergency. Sometimes they’re eerily intricate, and yet other times
vital details disappear altogether.
Author: Taylor Clark
Title: Nerve
Publisher: Little, Brown
Date: Copyright 2011 by Taylor Clark
Pages: 245-248

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Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came. 

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Published in: on December 20, 2010 at 9:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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