Training & Response versus Stress & Dumb

“No one becomes smarter under stress,” says Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist at
the University of New Haven, Connecticut. “The question really is who gets dumb faster.”

The armed forces of countries around the world spend countless hours training their personnel, repeating drills until they become ‘second nature’. Paraphrasing, the military saying is “a soldier will revert to their level of training.” I know, I can still perform SLR NSPs (normal safety procedures) despite not having touched one for more than 20 years. A recent article in the New Scientist informs us the value of this repetitive training:

“Many psychological studies have shown that under high stress, when your life is threatened or you have witnessed something terrible, it can be difficult to remember what to do. Or, if you do remember, to actually do it.

This helps explain why so many people caught in building fires and ferry disasters do nothing to save themselves; why people struggle to dial the emergency services in their moment of need; why 11 per cent of sky-diving deaths are due to parachutists failing to pull their reserve chutes.”

“So what befuddles our brains when the unthinkable happens, and can we do anything about it? That question has long obsessed the emergency services, military and others who regularly put themselves in danger. But we can all benefit from understanding what happens in our heads during a fire, mugging or terrorist attack – and we can use that knowledge to give ourselves the best shot at surviving.”

““Training for emergencies certainly works, there’s no doubt about that,” says John Leach, a former military survival instructor who studies survival psychology at the University of Portsmouth,UK. “How people respond depends very much on what they know.”

“Prior knowledge is crucial, because when disaster strikes, your brain is in no state for rational deliberation. It takes just seconds for adrenaline to flood into your bloodstream, pushing your heart rate up from about 70 beats per minute to over 200. Then the body’s central stress system releases the hormone cortisol, boosting blood sugar levels and suppressing non-essential functions such as digestion.

This evolved fight or flight mechanism prepares us for physical action, but inhibits areas of the brain that govern working memory and process new information. In other words, it primes us to act but not to think. With our cognitive faculties hobbled, if the threatening situation is one we have never been in before, there’s little chance of figuring out a solution.” (Bond, 2017, p.32-35).


Bond, M. (2017) In The Face of Danger. New Scientist. 13 May 2017.


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