Wednesday 10 August 2011

blink – a double take

I’m still reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and it is clearly turning out to be a thought promoting read. In Chapter 6 “Seven Seconds in the Bronx: The  Delicate Art of Mind Reading”,  in particular the section entitled “Arguing with a Dog”, has been the catalyst today  Here, Gladwell documents accounts of policemen telling of a time when they had to fire their guns.  Time and again such accounts, he says, show the same details  - extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound, and the sense that time is slowing down. This is how our bodies react to extreme stress.

Reading this I am reminded of my run in with a beaching boat in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. I am walking along the beach one morning when I am alerted by an elderly man shouting at me to look out, to look behind me. I turn round and coming straight for me, out of control, is a boat, beaching onto the sand. The next moment, probably less than a minute, is  for me characterised by these same sensations. All I can see is the boat, heading straight for my legs; I am aware that if it hits them they are gone; I am not conscious of any sound at all, I have some memory of back peddling in the sand and going down but then nothing. Unknown to me, my body has reacted with amazing speed and agility, I have somersaulted  head over heels and am standing erect away from the boat. For a moment I am not even sure whether I have been hit or not. Gradually everything settles back, something like normality returns, I am aware of everyone, they are talking and asking me questions. My arm I realise has been hit but not broken. I am alive, intact and just want to be somewhere else.

So my personal experience of extreme stress bears out Gladwell’s descriptions and just as the policemen who has to fire on an assailant and not hit his colleague performs better because his senses are narrowed, allowing him to focus on the situation to hand, so my senses narrowed to enable me to react very quickly and intuitively to the danger and so avert disaster.

Thus psychologists describe how under extreme pressure, as heart rates soar, people get too aroused, and past a certain point, our bodies begin shutting down so many sources of information in order to concentrate of survival, that people can no longer dial 911, they forget to press the send button on their mobile phone, they even void their bowels, all this lack of control comes as blood is withdrawn from our outer muscle layers and concentrated in the muscle core so as to make the muscle hard and limit bleeding in the event of injury.

This says Gladwell, is why many police departments have banned high speed chases – not just for the immediate dangers during the chase but because of what happens after it. High speed chases are exactly the sort of activity that push people into this dangerous state of high arousal. A clear example is given using the famous case of Rodney King – why did the officers not stop their beating of King when a colleague told them to back off – answer they did not hear his words, for them sound had silenced, their ears had shut down. Another example is given  of the case of Robert Russ, who pursuing policemen were so wound up after another post pursuit shooting, that they broke with protocol, exited their vehicle to confront Russ sitting quietly in his, not exactly resisting arrest ! The result was that the officer broke the car window and Russ was shot close up in the chest. An unjustified shooting as the officers should not have been anywhere near Russ’s car, the detailed protocol for such stops was for them to sit tight and ask the driver to get out of his car. Here the officers' aroused state, narrowed their vision and thinking, they constructed a rigid system that said that a young black man in a car running from police had to be a dangerous criminal and all evidence to the contrary that Russ was sitting quietly in his car, he had not gone about 70mph did not register. Yes  the typical reaction to extreme stress arousal - you stop relying on the actual evidence and fall back on stereotype. Now many US police department 's have moved from two officer squad cars to single officer cars - the reason, one cop on his own slows things down, no opportunity for bravado, and single cop cars get into less trouble.

Sadly all this would have been but interesting reading if it were not for the events of the past few days in London and the shooting of Mark Duggan. Reminiscent of John Charles De Menezes, Stephen Waldorf and probably many more.


  1. It's nice that you have your own personal stress-moment to bring these ideas together. The silence is the most interesting part. It explains a lot about why people who are perpetrating violence, in the midst of a crisis with people all around, remain isolated.

  2. Hi Ken , yes personal expereince verifies Gladwell's writings and makes it all the more real. (just to distinguish between two Ken's who now read here - this is ken two of CR right?)