Psychology of Confrontation – Part II Startle Reflex and the surprise attack.


Startle Reflex and the surprise attack.

In the previous blog I discussed some advanced thought processes, with regard to some of the interactions of the mind and the body when engaged in a violent encounter.     In this article, I want to look at some of the physiology that occurs as well as the psychology.  By physiology I mean bodily reactions that can be predicted. Firstly I want to examine our body’s natural protection mechanism, the “Startle Reflex”. Startle Reflex is one of the body’s first physiological responses to a surprise stimulus “startle reflex, refers to bodily reflexes that occur involuntary in response to an unanticipated external stimulus” Chapél (1991).

We know from research and experiments carried out that the body has in-built protection systems designed to protect the body from harm. One of these is the Startle Reflex, also referred to as a “Flinch”.   All humans will respond in a certain manner when a startling stimulus occurs, for example; blinking, upward movement of the shoulders, head tucking in and down, bending of the arms and their withdrawal into our core, bending of the legs and their withdrawal into our core, as well as several facial expressions and various twisting of the whole body and limbs. In the majority of Martial Arts schools there is no inclusion of this within the training of self-defence techniques. Techniques usually start from a punch, grab or kick scenario.

So why try to understand this type of reflex?

How is it produced?

What happens to the body when startled?

Firstly if you teach reality-based self-defence techniques and exclude this from your curriculum, you are not giving your students all the knowledge possible to enable them protect themselves.    You must however remember that the startle reflex only occurs when you are startled, this may be an obvious statement, but it is very important that a clear distinction is made between: being caught off guard and completely by surprise with no awareness of the impending attack; and being attacked, responding in some kind of trained manner, to a confrontation that has already begun, a preamble or pre violence dance has occurred.

When you are startled it is due to stimulus being received via your eyes, ears or touch sensory system.  These can be categorized as Auditory Startle, Visual Startle and Sanatoma Sensory Startle. The first thing to understand here is that this reflex cannot be trained out!  The increase in our body’s reaction to startles is called “sensitisation” where as a decrease is called “habituation”. This means that the body will habituate to a certain point when it continues to receive startle stimulus. For example in the film “We are Solders” with Mel Gibson, when the journalist first appears on the battleground, the explosions startle him.  However, during the end scene when others turn up after the battle, his startle reflex had been habituated, to explosions, the new journalist all startle.    After a period of time the body will return to normal reactions to this stimulus and the habituated response will become extinct. What this tells us is that we can habituate being caught off guard when attacked and to a degree we can train down a startle reflex. However we would have to be continually training in a method that created a startle all of the time, as soon as we suspend this type of training the reflex will re-initiate itself.

When the body enters a startle reflex it moves in a manner that is faster than any other type of body movement. It simply cannot be reproduced by any conscious thought process. Any idea that you can train in a way that uses a flinch or startle response as part of your initial conscious thought process to respond to an attack is unrealistic.    The reason is due to the physiology of the body.


Another factor to be considered with regard to being startled and the severity of the startle is the situation and environment that you are in at the time. If you are in a dark alley and are alone at night, then the intensity of the startle may well be greater than the same alley during daylight hours. The key areas to consider with regard to Startle Reflex and Martial Arts are; can we train a response that can be used? Can we move intentionally at a speed approaching Startle Reflex speed?

There are recorded accounts of people who have trained intensively reacting to a startle stimulus in a trained response manner, while under extreme emotionally charged situations. This would indicate that although the reflex cannot be trained out, it could be substituted for movements similar to self-protection moves that you have trained for.   I am not talking about full on blocks or attacks. I am talking about shielding moves of reflex hand swipes across the face – i.e. programming a response that will help protect you if surprised.

With regard to moving at the same speed, we have to understand the physiology behind the reflex. The neurons that fire during the reflex action, never reach the conscious parts of our brain. The body has to switch off all the prime mover, fixator muscles and instead use the fast twitch muscles, known as our Antagonistic muscles. Typically the empirical evidence indicates that the body parts that are moving during this action first move back towards our core “The head retracts, shoulders hunch, arms bend and retract, knees bend and our legs withdraw to our core” Chapél (2006), briefly wanting to return to the fetal position. Knowing this and understanding the body’s natural reactions will allow us, as Martial Artist, to prepare our students for a stimulus based trained response to a surprise attack. What comes next is the dump of a chemical cocktail into the blood stream to enable the body to cope with the impending violence. At this stage we will also enter a state of mind that will either help or impede our survival. It’s also important to remember at this point that the attack is a surprise! Your attacker could be lying in wait for you, or stalking you ready to attack at a moment of their choosing, when they perceive you to be at your weakest. There is unlikely to be any verbal warning that the attack is coming, therefore coping strategies for a verbal encounter should not be much of a concern, with this method of attack. This is very much about prior knowledge of your body’s natural protection mechanisms and the simple fact that your only chance of a response during this surprise attack, is to train a stimulus based, programmed response. There is a distinct chance that you may even be shocked into a freeze state, one in which you are incapable of any response. Now we are entering the realm of our body’s physiology and the adrenal dump. What this will do is send the body into a high state of emotion, knowing what this feels like and understanding it, is the first step to coping with the effects on the body. To clarify, this is a surprise attack! First we enter a startle reflex and then the body goes into some type of fight or flight response, due to the adrenal dump. When the situation is changed to a perceived encounter first then the Adrenal dump will come first.

Early in this article I spoke about the need to have a very limited response against a surprise attack. We need to look at this in a little more detail here. How are we going to be surprised? As a martial artist, one of the first things that should be taught is awareness, awareness of your environment, the potential dangers and how to avoid them. Lets face it with today’s technology how many times do you see people walking down a street with ear phones in and music blasting out, or they may be totally engrossed in a phone conversation. Colour coding awareness levels has been put forward before (Cooper 1989), with awareness levels running from white to black, white being totally un-aware and black being in the middle of combat. It’s simply not possible to be totally aware at all times, we are all capable of being surprised. Even if we are expecting an assault we can still be startled. So what type of shielding moves of reflex hand swipes should we train.

As far as possible they need to mimic the movements that would be made during a startle reflex, it’s no good trying to programme in something that is far removed from the actual moves. We know that both hands will work in a symmetrical manner, this means that they will both retract together. This then can be used in our favour, bringing both hands in back, then up to cover the face, would be one example of a shielding movement. Another could be just one hand being swiped across the face, as if trying to swat a fly away. Both have to be programmed into the responses. We must remember here that these moves are only our initial reflex responses to being surprised; we have yet to respond in a significant way.

What I have done within this text is create a clear divide, between being surprised and going into an involuntary startle reflex. I have explained the reasons for this reflex. As our reflex’s are part of our body autonomic nervous system there is not a great deal that we can do, other than train it into an habituated state and one that will need constant re-enforcing to prevent extinction. In the coming chapters a lot of the above information will cross over into other areas, as we delve into the workings of our body and mind. The whole area of knowledge is contained within “Psychology of Confrontation” Chapél (2006).  An area of training that I also mentioned above is stimulus training as opposed to scenario based training. This is where training a response to a stimulus takes priority over knowing what the attack will be, what’s key here, is how this type of training can be started and then progressed so that true un-known attacks can be handled effectively by any student, something for later.


Chapél R, phd, (1991) course book S-101 V-9.9.8

Cooper J, (1989) “principles of personal defence” Paladin Press

Chapél R, phd, (2006) seminar teaching notes

, , , , ,

  1. #1 by george Avalon on October 17, 2012 - 08:11

    You quite rightly say “As far as possible they need to mimic the movements that would be made during a startle reflex”. This is exactly what you do in Yang style Tai Chi. The basic block is called ‘double hand ward off’, where both hands are raised high – just as the reflex action- as the name suggests you ‘ward’ someone off. Of course, this technique is stylised to ensure balance and greater protection – but it’s essense is the reflex action you talk about. Thats the wonder of Tai Chi- it uses natural action.

  2. #2 by fortalte on June 3, 2015 - 05:51

    I feel this is among the such a lot significant info
    for me. And i am happy studying your article.
    However should observation on few basic things, The web site taste is perfect, the articles
    is actually nice : D. Excellent activity, cheers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: