Last issue, we discussed the types of memory distortions that commonly occur during critical incidents including slow motion time, loss of memory, and false memories.
In this issue, we’ll wrap up the series with an explanation of what muscle memory is, and we’ll answer the question once and for all, “Is action faster than reaction?”
What Exactly is Muscle Memory?
We’ve all tossed out the phrase muscle memory when talking about learning a repetitive skill, regardless of whether that skill is playing golf, playing the piano, or drawing from the holster. Unfortunately, muscles themselves have no memory, so, where exactly are these repetitive skills being stored? The answer is the cerebellum. When a certain skill or movement is practiced repeatedly, pathways are actually modified in the cerebellum to store and link individual movements, similar to how individual still frames are stored and linked on a spool of film. The more the skill or movement is repeated, the stronger the pathways linking the individual steps. The result can be near automatic playback of the stored memory of movements.
These hypothetical situations all beg the question, “Is action faster than reaction?”
As an example, new students learning to draw from the holster will learn that there are four steps involved, and they will practice those movements in four distinct steps. But after thousands of repetitions, those four movements have become fluid, and the “experts” may not even be able to answer the question, “How many steps does it take to draw the handgun from the holster?” To them, the process is fluid and automatic. (They might even say, “It takes just one step.”) No one knows how many times a task or series of tasks will need to be repeated before it’s ready for “automatic playback,” but suffice to say, it’s going to be more than plinking at the range a couple of times a year. Dry firing, drawing from the holster with a cleared firearm, and virtual simulations are all ways that these pathways can be built, all without a shot ever being fired.
Is Action Faster than Reaction?
If an attacker unexpectedly lunges at you with a knife, can you draw your firearm in time to stop him? Can you out draw an attacker if he already has a firearm pointed at you? When the threat ends, how quickly can you stop shooting? These hypothetical situations all beg the question, “Is action faster than reaction?”
If we’re going to prepare ourselves for the reality of shooting in self-defense, and the reality of defending our actions in court, it’s critical to understand the limitations of human reaction time, and how those limitations should affect our preparation and training, as well as our defense in a court of law. To help prepare ourselves for those realities, we’re going to take a look at two studies which analyzed reaction times to visual stimuli. The first study analyzed vehicle braking reaction time, while the second study analyzed the reaction time required for shooters to start shooting and to stop shooting. The results of both studies will help to answer the questions posed earlier.
Braking: How Long Does it Take to Stop?
Let’s take a look at a study analyzing the reaction times of drivers to a braking maneuver. In the article “How Long Does It Take To Stop? Methodological Analysis of Driver Perception-Brake Times” published in 2000, researchers concluded that “reaction time” is actually a sequence of multiple stages. For our purposes, we’ll group them into the following components:
Perception/Cognitive Processing Time.
This is the time required for the individual to receive, recognize, and process the sensory signal (auditory, visual, etc.), and to formulate a response. Referring back to our brain schematic, it’s the time required for the sensory input to pass the “Switchboard” (the thalamus) and get processed by the “Thinker” (the sensory cortex).
Motor Reaction Time.
This is the time required for the individual to perform the required movement, such as lifting the foot off the accelerator and applying the brake. In other words, it’s the time required for the “Engineer” (the motor cortex) to request movement, and the muscles to respond.
If an attacker lunges at you with a knife, can you draw your firearm in time to stop him?
In this study, researchers tested braking reaction times under three different scenarios: when the braking maneuver was expected, when it was unexpected, and when it came as a complete surprise. The “expected” scenarios occurred when the person being tested knew that the test was to measure their braking reaction time, and they were prepared to brake as quickly as possible when signaled to do so. The “unexpected” scenarios occurred when the person being tested had to react to common but unexpected signals, such as seeing the brake lights of the car in front of them. The “surprise” brake maneuvers occurred when something completely unexpected occurred during the scenario, such as an object suddenly moving into the driver’s path.
As shown in the chart, when a braking maneuver was unexpected or came as a surprise, the perception/cognitive processing time that occurred before movement began ranged from just over one second to 1.2 seconds. Even when the maneuver was expected, the perception/cognitive processing time was 0.5 seconds before movement began. Before analyzing these numbers further, let’s take a look at the “Tempe Study,” which analyzed police officer reaction times to start and stop shooting.
The Tempe Study
In 2003, 102 police officers from the Tempe, Arizona Police Department underwent a series of tests conducted by Dr. Bill Hudson and Dr. Bill Lewinski, to measure their reaction time to start and stop shooting based upon visual stimuli. In these experiments, the officers were expecting the stimuli, and they knew they should start and stop shooting based upon the stimuli, so the perception/cognitive processing time, and motor reaction time were kept to an absolute minimum.
…researchers determined that the average officer required between 5/10ths and 6/10ths of a second to react to the light going out, and to stop pressing the trigger.
Experiment #1: Time to press the Trigger
The first test was designed to determine the officers’ average response time to press the trigger based upon the visual stimulus of a light. Results indicated that the officers, on average, took 25/100ths of a second to react to the light, and another 6/100ths of a second to press the trigger, for a total response time of 31/100ths of a second.
Experiment #2: Time to Stop Pressing the Trigger
In this experiment, the trigger press was to begin when the light went on, and end when the light went out. During this test, the researchers determined that the average officer required between 5/10ths and 6/10ths of a second to react to the light going out, and to stop pressing the trigger. Since the trigger could be pressed much faster (6/100ths of a second) than the officers could react to the changed conditions (at least 5/10ths of a second), each officer pressed the trigger at least twice, and sometimes three times after the light indicated they should stop shooting.
Multi-Tasking and Its Effect on Reaction Time
In both studies, researchers concluded that the more an individual was multi-tasking or the more complex the required movement was, the longer the reaction times would be. That conclusion is echoed in a summary of multiple driving studies compiled by the National Safety Council, where the NSC concluded that driver multi-tasking added an average of 0.6 seconds to the response time required for braking. During the Tempe study, multitasking was limited (the officers were only focused on the light and trigger press), however the researchers pointed out that during critical incidents, officers were very likely “moving, pointing, ducking, seeking cover, shooting, processing, reacting emotionally, etc.,” which would affect their overall ability to start and stop shooting.
Based upon the results of both studies, it’s clear that “reaction time” is more than just the time required to draw a firearm, press a trigger, or press a brake. Reaction time also includes at least one-quarter of a second, and as much as 1.2 seconds of perception/cognitive processing before any movement takes place (and that’s in ideal, controlled conditions). Taking those numbers and placing them in the context of self-defense, let’s try to answer the questions posed earlier:
…our full reaction might take more than three seconds, which is enough time for an attacker to cover more than 50 feet.
If an attacker lunges at you with a knife, can you draw your firearm in time to stop him? That depends on how close the attacker is. Since attacks are almost always a surprise, we should assume that we’d need 1.2 seconds to perceive and process the fact that we’re under attack, plus the time required to draw our firearm and align it with the attacker. Let’s assume the motor reaction time takes two seconds (the time to orient toward the attacker, and draw our firearm from concealment). That means that our full reaction might take more than three seconds, which is enough time for an attacker to cover more than 50 feet. So the answer to the question is, “Are you more than 50 feet away from the attacker?” or better yet, “How closely were you observing your surroundings?”
Can you “out draw” an attacker if he already has a firearm pointed at you? No. Based upon the results of the Tempe study, we can conclude that an attacker will require just 6/100ths of a second to press the trigger, while we’ll need as much as 1.2 seconds of perception/cognitive processing time, before any movement can begin, including drawing our own firearm, or ducking behind cover. Our best bet in this situation is to count on Jeff Cooper’s description of an inadequate or inept attacker.
In summary, the short answer is that action always beats reaction.
When the threat ends, how quickly can you stop shooting? Based upon the Tempe study, the answer is at least 5/10ths of a second when multitasking, and longer when engaged in multiple tasks simultaneously, such as moving, seeking cover, etc. Asked another way, “Once the trigger press has started, if the attacker throws down his weapon, can the defender stop himself in time?” The answer is no. The test indicated that the time required to react to the changed condition was more than eight times the time required to abort a trigger press–once the trigger press began, it was simply impossible to stop it, even if the situation had changed.
In summary, the short answer is that action always beats reaction. While automated responses (responses governed by the “short route” through the brain) can be near instantaneous (such as ducking into a crouch when a loud noise occurs), the cognitive responses discussed here (responses governed by the “long route” through the brain) are not instantaneous. Because of that, we must compensate by:
Being hyper-aware of our surroundings and the individuals within our protective bubble.
Preparing for an attack before it occurs by increasing our distance, orienting toward the possible threat, taking cover, and/or preparing to access our firearm.
Making intelligent decisions about our equipment and carry techniques – for example, too many holster retention devices, or too many layers of clothing, can slow a response.
[ Michael Martin is a firearms instructor and author, living in Woodbury Minnesota with his wife Sara and two little boys, Jack and Sam. Michael is the author of “Concealed Carry Fundamentals” and “Minnesota Permit to Carry a Firearm Fundamentals,” both available on www.keyhousepress.com. Michael is also the owner and director of Minnesota Tactics (www.mntactics.com), a firearms training organization specializing in introducing beginners to the world of self-defense, firearms and the shooting sports. Michael is also a certified NRA instructor, and a member of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI). ]