Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky reckoned the bible had it right: in the beginning there was the word. Then thinking. The Wikipedia hive mind puts it this way: “Vygotsky . . . believed inner speech developed from external speech via a gradual process of internalization, with younger children only really able to ‘think out loud,’ he claimed that in its mature form inner speech would be unintelligible to anyone except the thinker, and would not resemble spoken language as we know it (in particular, being greatly compressed).” In other words, your thoughts are incomprehensible to anyone but you. And I have my doubts about that too. Anyway, in terms of armed self-defense . . .

Thinking under fire is impossible, right? The vast majority of people who survive gunfights can’t tell you what they were thinking. At least not much and certainly not sequentially. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was on autopilot.” Again and again  shooters will tell you they acted without willful intent. The operators amongst them will say “I reverted to my training.” Like it’s not a good thing. Like it’s the only thing.

I call that the “Muscle Memory School of Gunfighting.” Proponents argue that there’s only way to ensure that you’ll achieve something near adequate performance in a gunfight: train and train and train and train until all your actions become instinctive. So when the S hits the F, you react appropriately. Without thinking. Quickly.

The danger with this philosophy: you react without thinking. If a self-defense scenario doesn’t conform to your unthinking/instinctive expectations—say, you never trained for multiple attackers or a firearms malfunction—you  mentally “freeze up.” This does not compute. What now? Hello? Body to brain? What now?

That’s why the best simunitions training uses stop – start methodology. The trainer shouts FREEZE in the middle of a scenario and asks questions of the motionless participants. They stop reacting unconsciously, look around and think about their actions and options. Alternatively, the scenario plays out. The trainer immediately interrogates the participants—before their memory of events disappears.

A lot of people dismiss this kind of training—and all that tacticool running around—as childish play. Just so. “Through play the child develops abstract meaning separate from the objects in the world,” Lev wrote, “which is a critical feature in the development of higher mental functions.” By “playing” at armed self-defense [some] students develop the ability to think about what’s going on on an abstract (i.e. emotionally detached) level when a defensive gun use (DGU) occurs.

Put another way, you don’t think you think under high stress but you do. You just don’t remember doing it. But if you consciously practice controlling your “inner speech” you can use your higher mental functions during a DGU and, thus, gain a strategic advantage. All you have to do is “talk to yourself.”

Try keeping a videogame-like running monologue going during self-defense practice. OK, not like the braggarts on YouTube. But not a million miles away either. “Gotta find cover now. Where are the other threats? Don’t need to reload. Who’s calling 911? Must call 911. Cell phone left hand. Holster gun? No, not yet.” Etc.

If that’s difficult, do it out loud, initially. Hey, it worked when you were three, why wouldn’t it work when you’re 53? But above all, don’t “let” yourself freeze. If you’re not going to talk yourself through a DGU at least give yourself a running pep talk. Loop the words observe, orient, decide, act. Or adapt, improvise, overcome. Anything other than “holy shit” or “this sucks.” Know what I mean?

24 Responses to Self-Defense Tip: Talk to Yourself [Video NSFW]

    • I want my minute back, too. But I won’t. Get it back, I mean.

      As for talking to yourself, I believe it’s an excellent practice. I’m so into it, I talk to inanimate objects. But I never expect them to talk BACK.

  1. I would guess that what the simunitions training “stop” practice does is enrich the pre-conscious complexity of our brain’s reactions, i.e. we still don’t consciously think once the trouble begins, but we ‘don’t think’ at a higher level…laugh. Vygotsky is bad science, I would say. The brain thinks in pre-verbal mode. Some call it mentalese. The words come later. “The Language Instinct,” by Steven Pinker, is probably a good reference. It is also known that you decide things before you become consciously aware of your decision. The same research is what killed off the notion that your thinking is limited by the vocabulary of your native language.

    • I think it’s excellent psychology. What does science have to do with it?

      Maybe the “brain thinks in pre-verbal mode”, but I sorta doubt it. Are you aware in the least of the voice in your head that talks to you all the time?

      In most ways it’s our enemy. I won’t get technical here – as if I would consider it – but in meditation, the aim is to be still until you can totally quiet that voice. It’s at that point, and ONLY that point, that new and novel ideas emerge. And let me tell you, if you can achieve that inner quiet for even thirty seconds, you will get so elated you will become positively GIDDY, and find yourself laughing, despite yourself.

      It’s an excellent, maybe THE most excellent, way to clean out the clutter and dreck from your conscious mind. It’s my belief that each and every shooter can benefit from some sort of meditation. Clearing the mind is one of the best tools you have. And we all have it, but it’s obviously easier for some than others. But it can be done.

  2. One simple mantra: “front sight – front sight – front sight – front sight”.

    As in “Focus on the front sight and put that in the center of mass.” THEN tell yourself to move, reload, etc. – but you have to hit something while you are talking to yourself.

  3. We do have a certain level of preconscious (or unconscious) natural reactivity that is critical in a multiplicity of martial arts. Ever knocked something of a self or counter and, without consciously thinking about it, snagged it out of mid-air? How did your hand just automatically go to exactly the right spot, even when you don’t even look at that spot? Amazing how fast it happens. This is what training does; it teaches us to unconsciously react to a threat, to movement. I used to fence in college, and if you are not familiar with the sport, the blades move too fast to follow. But the real experts (I fenced with two Hungarian Olympic champions, one the team coach) instantly react when you just start t move to attack. For example, I remember once trying my best to make a direct attack on one of these Olympians (1968 Saber silver medalist for Hungary), just moving in a straight line from point A to point B. In the half second it took me to do that, he did a stop cut to my wrist, parried the attack, and did a chest cut–before I landed my attack. Unbelievable. But a lot of this skill is encoded–and we just have to get past our conscious mind to access these abilities. Which takes lots of practice to the point you stop thinking about it, only doing.

  4. Well, that was certainly different. But not just for the video game clip.
    When that kid finally starts “playing” the game; combined with the topic
    of having an internal dialogue during a DGU, or OGU in this case, it left
    me laughing listening to him bitch and moan. The funny thing is, when
    I was watching the video, I noticed that an internal dialogue was going
    on in my head. “What the hell is he doing running around like a rabbit
    on meth? I this kid an idiot? Why is he…wait, was that one of his guys
    that he just swept with his gun? Hey, is there a purpose to this FPS!?”
    Of late, I find my internal dialogue is set to sarcastically disassemble.

    If this kids external dialogue is your internal dialogue during a DGU,
    then you probably should run away as fast and as safely as you possibly
    can. You aren’t mentally prepared to help anyone, much less yourself.
    But then, in a stressful DGU, how would you know when to say when?
    It’s the oldest response to a threat; fight or flight, and when to do which.
    If you’re not doing one, you’re doing the other…or probably should be?
    Does that qualify as sound thinking, or just ancestral primate behavior?
    ?

  5. I talk to myself all the time, but I had no idea that I was preparing for self-defense. I thought I was just trying to remember where I left my bifocals.

  6. Oh good god…
    He seems like the kind of person to pick up an actual gun, fiddle with it, sweep actual people, and toss it down saying its too “noobish”. Id be surprised if he knew were the bullet comes out. In a DGU hed be screwed.

  7. Instead of articulating what you should be doing; seeking cover, scanning for threats, reloading, etc… I think the emphasis should be on articulating what is happening to you; especially if you are in public. Be loud and clear enough any potential witnesses or recording devices hear you. Call for help, tell someone to call 911, tell the subject or subjects to stop what they are doing. Make witnesses out of other people. Just my two cents to CYA.

  8. I’m half in and half out of agreement. Talking one’s self through training, at least initially, may well assist in making the associations that need to happen stick in the mid brain. As far as continuing to think rationally during combat, I have to say no. There appear to be some highly training and experienced operators who can exist in condition red, and even above it, in the so called ‘grey zone’ of 145 bpm heart rates and still perform miracles. Typically these are warriors who have seen the elephant multiple times. Realistically one the sympathetic nervous system is sufficiently engaged (we’re talking about milliseconds after threat identification) information from the fore brain becomes increasingly ignored by all the brain structures below it. This is actually fortunate as the fore brain, while dealing with the threat also ‘thinks’ about things like how we feel about what is happening and what it means to us personally. It is too cumbersome and too slow to be useful in close combat. The midbrain thinks about thinks like any other mammal other than man when he isn’t under the throes of his sympathetic nervous system response to threat.
    A dog is perhaps the animal most people will be familiar with that operates in the midbrain and studying their behavior is instructive. Try kicking a dog sometime and see what he does. I’ll bet it’s scurry out of the way first, then either continue to flee to a safe distance before looking back to reassess the threat or else wheel and begin aggressively biting you, depending on his temperament. Try this with an unsuspecting human and often you get a considerable under-reaction resulting in them taking the kick, then backing up not to safety but only far enough to begin posturing or complaining. Try it with a human who has just had the fright of their lives and they are apt to jump clear and either run to safety or else attack you with big gross motor movements such as kicks and flailing punches, depending on their temperament. (Note: one should not kick at dogs or people! This is for illustration only!)
    The reason for the difference is that with only a low level threat perceived humans remain in their forebrain which deals in logic, reason and subsequently things like social station, respect and all sorts of annoying abstractions counter to survival in combat. Demonstrate a clearly lethal threat and the forebrain goes offline and the midbrain takes control driving the classic fight or flight response.
    The effect of the sympathetic nervous system response is so profound that digestion ceases, vasodilatation occurs and blood flow to the extremities decreases drastically. All non-essential biological processes are shut down almost instantly as cortisol and adrenaline flood the bloodstream and reserve all available oxygen and nutrients for the purpose of survival. One of the things that goes is the luxury of the forebrains instructions. No matter how absurd, under these conditions we devolve to our level of training because we’re not able to use the forebrains resources for dealing with novel situations and must rely on the conditioned instinct of the mid-brain, which is to say on our training.
    There are documented cases of police found dead with empty brass from their revolvers in their pockets because on the range they trained to dump the empties into a hand and put them there, and this is what they did in combat. Likewise when the FBI used to train to fire two shots then reholster, there were agents who did just that in combat, with the threat still standing there in front of them unabated. It seems incredible that the priorities of combat and the ridiculousness of these actions didn’t negate them happening, but the fact is they didn’t. While such would be obvious to the forebrain with its logic and understanding that the game had changed it made no difference to the midbrain, operating on its conditioned response. If it were the case that the forebrain continued to function through combat but that we simply don’t remember it then these cases are truly inexplicable.
    Fact checkers may wish to start with Lt. Col David Grossman’s books On Killing and On Combat for detailed lists of the cases and studies pertinent to the arguments above. (Never minding that they really are required reading at the FBI Academy, West Point, the War College and other reputable institutions responsible for training warriors and should probably be on the shelf of anyone serious about using lethal force for whatever reason.)

  9. “Thinking (a.k.a., an internal monologue) under fire is impossible, right? After all, the vast majority of people who survive gunfights can’t tell you what they were thinking. At least not much and certainly not sequentially. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was on autopilot.”

    A large number of people that are involved in life threatening situations recall events as if in “slow motion”. The brain is a wonderful thing. In very stressful situations the brain speeds up so much as to seem unnatural, everything slows down as a result. Reaction times however, stay the same or slightly faster. Autopilot? Most might think this is true, but is not, your brain is actually thinking it through, but at such a fast rate, so far removed from normal thought processes as to seem that something else is in control. It’s not. Your brain is thinking it through, it’s just so fast that it seems like you never thought about it.

    • +1 Language is a higher order concept. A frightened mind is operating on impressions and reacting according to experiences.

  10. There’s a concept in psychology that’s been around for almost sixty years now called “chunking”. The idea is that we process information in chunks, but what those chunks contain is variable. Wikipedia has a great example. People who learn Morse code first hear and process the dahs and dits individually, then start hearing them as letters, then words, then phrases. At each level, the chunk includes more and more.

    That’s what training should do for you. You’re still thinking, but the chunks you’re working with are larger, so you can process more information, better.

  11. I’m starting to loathe 1st person shooter games like this. There’s a whole lot of hauling ass and rapid fire, and precious little taking cover and evaluating before shooting. It’s pretty obvious that the game is played where life resets, and a lethal mistake carries no more cost than a momentary embarassment. I haven’t played XBox 360 in over 6 months, and can’t say that I miss it. I’ll take real guns with real triggers any day.

    • What various researchers in the field suggest is that violent FPS games are highly effective in desensitizing and conditioning in such a way that the typical injunction against killing is seriously eroded. The downsides are primarily two fold, both of which you’ve already partially articulated.

      The games provide very poor training in terms of tactics of almost every kind (the exceptions seem to be that they encourage good sight picture and targeting (ie center of mass) and condition ‘reflexive’ fire, or shooting at humanoid things that pop up near to the shooter).

      The other serious failing of the sort of conditioning and desensitization video games provide is that they do not come with the responsibility, control and consequence of real world shooting. Whereas extensive (military or tactical police) firearms training tends to result in an increased ability to kill or attempt to kill when the situation justifies, they also decrease the likelihood of killing when it isn’t justified. Games do not contain this aspect. It’s arguable that police/military firearms training produces individuals who are ‘programmed’ to fire under specific lawful circumstances while violent FPS games train individuals to kill indiscriminately (and in numbers).
      If you’d like to examine a very concise and well elucidated case for the direction your thoughts seem to be headed I highly recommend Lt. Col. David Grossman’s books On Killing and On Combat.

  12. Vygotsky is still referenced today by many leading child psychologists / researchers. No doubt he’d have interesting things to say about video games and modern youths. Optic gaming, along with the rest of the FPS clans of CoD, are notorious for their potty mouth – both in game and taunting other players.

    I’d like to think my internal dialogues are less profane, but given the potential crisis of a real DGU, I’m sure I’d be cussing like sailor.

  13. I think the video was supposed to be an example of someone doing a running commentary while in a gun battle. The problem is, he died about 8 times. You only get once.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *