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Scientists and Cavemen

“If you’re not shooting, you should be loading. If you’re not loading, you should be moving. If you’re not moving, someone’s gonna cut your head off and put it on a stick.” – Clint Smith, Owner & CEO of Thunder Ranch.

When we experience sudden trauma, fear, or stress – whether it be physical, psychological, or both – something happens inside our bodies that cannot otherwise be replicated. We get high on adrenaline. In an adrenalized state humans are only capable of five things: fighting – fleeing – freezing – fornicating – posturing. (In the south we refer to posturing as “bowing up.”) Experiencing adrenaline is a natural phenomenon that effects individuals in different ways and to varying degrees. Because of our limited abilities under adrenaline, it can work to our advantage, or its effects can be deadly. Like any other intoxicating substance – and make no mistake, adrenaline is an intoxicant – it comes with pros and cons.

When adrenaline hits, the heart rate increases instantly. The resting heart rate of a healthy adult is generally around 60-70 BPM. It’s common for people to experience heart rates in excess of 170-180+ BPM under extreme stress. An elevated heart rate comes with its own side effects. When your heart pumps that fast and that hard, circulatory restrictions come into play, and your extremities, including your eyes, ears, and brain will likely be impacted.

Your prefrontal cortex turns off and your amygdala activates with the speed of flipping a light switch. Your prefrontal cortex is where your personality lives and where your critical thinking abilities set up shop. It is also the part of the brain where the once popular, trans-orbital- bilateral lobotomy was directed. The prefrontal cortex is very intelligent – it’s your inner scientist, and when the scientist gets fired your inner caveman gets a promotion.

Your caveman brain is super strong, but good grief it’s dumb. Your scientist and your caveman don’t work together. They are not a team. As we’ve already discussed, your caveman can ONLY do five things, and can usually only do one of those things at a time. Furthermore, as luck would have it, your caveman is directly attached to the part of your brain responsible for memory formation, which we’ll discuss a little later.

Sensation in your fingers and toes is likely to disappear, rendering fine motor function tasks difficult or impossible. Tunnel vision is also very common. If you’ve never experienced tunnel vision, the best way I can illustrate it is to have you imagine a console television that has just been powered off. Remember that circle of light that remained in the center of the screen for about 15 minutes? Now imagine that circle is your entire field of view and the black screen surrounding it is where your peripheral vision used to be. For you Gen-Z people, just google it.

Auditory exclusion is another side effect that you’re likely to experience. It means exactly what you think – your ears turn off. People hear nothing at all, or they hear in fragments. For example, you might fire 10 shots in a gunfight, but only hear the first one. Auditory fabrication is far less common, but it happened to me once in a “near-shooting” situation. I actually heard gunfire that didn’t happen, and I still remember the sound, even though I know for a fact that no lead was actually slung. Weird, huh?

Memory loss is almost certain to occur after being in an adrenalized state. Bits and pieces of memory lost tend to return in bits and pieces over time. Unfortunately, tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and memory loss usually cause witnesses and victims to suck at providing reliable, chronological information immediately following a traumatic event. Don’t feel bad about that. You can’t help it.

Adrenaline is also a pain suppressant more potent than morphine. Adrenaline is why most people don’t realize they’ve been shot or stabbed until the adrenaline subsides, or they wake up dead. With adrenaline coursing through your system, you become capable of doing, saying, and enduring things you wouldn’t otherwise be capable of. You need to know what to expect when that happens – when the abnormal becomes normal.

So how do we combat the effects of adrenaline? We train. We train our bodies and our minds so that when the scientist isn’t around to call the shots and the caveman takes over, we go on “autopilot,” and our bodies do what’s necessary to keep our head off of a stick.

Please realize this article barely scratches the surface of the topic at hand. I encourage you to do your own research and be able to better understand the role adrenaline plays in life- or-death situations.

I intentionally try not to sell our readers anything in these articles, but I would encourage everyone to get a copy of “On Combat” by retired US Army Ranger – Lieutenant Colonel, Dave Grossman. It isn’t a substitute for quality training, but it is the most informative and authoritative text I’ve ever read on the realities of combat.

Join us next week. Some egos might just get injured in Slicing the Pie #12.

Until then… Avoid what you can. Defeat what you can’t.


(Ryan Barnette is not a licensed attorney or a medical provider, and no information provided in “Slicing the Pie,” or any other publication authored by Ryan Barnette should be construed, in any way, as official legal, or medical advice.)