The Psychology of Hearing a Gunshot

You hear a loud, sharp bang.

The fact that it was louder and sharper than other sounds at the time will cause your brain to divert significant bandwidth to it. Whether you want it to or not, your brain triggers the F3 (fight-flight-freeze) response to the bang. You unconsciously respond as your brain chooses which of the F3 responses to engage. It happens in as little as a second. Chances are your brain selected the freeze option. Knowing why and understanding the benefits and liabilities to that response could save your life.

Have you ever observed a squirrel going about its business bouncing around your yard? Although it’s a little mean, I occasionally take a quick step in its direction. I’m not sure why I do it, probably just to get a reaction from the squirrel. As soon as I move, the squirrel immediately changes direction and like lightning, is gone. Its brain, too, triggered the F3; although it chose flight over freeze. Interesting.

Obviously, the squirrel has a less developed brain than ours. As obvious is the fact that our brains provide millions of advantages over the squirrel’s; however, there is one situation in which the squirrel has the advantage over us: The loud, sharp bang. We freeze while it flees.

What if the loud, sharp bang is a gunshot? Furthermore, what if it is a gunshot from an active shooter intent on doing harm? In this case, the squirrel would move away from the sound of the gunshot sooner. That does not make the squirrel’s reaction better than ours, it simply makes it sooner.

We can learn something important from this observation. The squirrel’s flight response is immediate. Our freeze response delays the flight response, which is beneficial…if we understand it and control it. The squirrel has no choice but to flee because its brain gave it no choice. We have aspects of our developed brain that allow us to reason through a loud, sharp bang. What was it? There are so many loud, sharp bangs we hear during our lives that we train our brain to pause, or freeze, to gather more information on the bang to determine if it is a threat or not.

You’ve seen it. News footage of a gunshot. Everybody freezes and looks at each other for clues about the bang. Then one by one, people react. This is the part that, if you understand it, can save your life. For how long do you freeze? Those who do not understand that their brain is controlling them at that critical moment, and their brain is apt to have them freeze until indisputable information as to the nature of the bang is presented, are likely to be frozen in place for too long. They then increase their chances of becoming the shooter’s victim.

The military has a macabre expression; “There are two types of people: the quick and the dead.” In our scenario, it is true. Soldiers are taught to overcome F3 through training. They train on battle drills that help shorten the time between freeze and either fight or flight. The brain accepts this training and eventually commits to it. It’s the same basic concept as muscle memory. If you train your brain to recognize a repetitive motion, like a golf swing or an assembly line procedure, then it will react accordingly without conscious thought to guide it.

In the case of the loud, sharp bang, just knowing about the effects of F3 will help you speed up your response. You can practice this any time. Make a mental list of places you go. Just think through some scenarios that could happen. What would you do if you heard a bang? Go over it in your mind several times picturing your response. Picture your movements and your best direction of travel. Commit it to muscle memory. This will help you overcome F3 sooner and could save your life.