How to improve your situational awareness with natural threat detection mechanisms

'Situational awareness' (SA) is a major topic of self-defence training programs because as far as self-protection is concerned, being able to detect threats early on gives us opportunities to avoid bad situations.

This is why most instructors will emphasize the idea of 'paying attention to our surroundings' usually by scanning our environment and being actively looking for signs of troubles.

There is a number of issues with this approach which I addressed in another article (Hypervigilance: what too much Situational Awareness does to your brain) but the main one is our inability to pay attention to everything all at once and all the time.

Attention is a limited resource

The good news, though, is that we are naturally equipped with a number of threat detection mechanisms.

Wolf on the hunt

Our minds are the product of hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection and living in the wild.

"Actually, humans seem to be hard-wired to detect threats as a number of threat detection mechanisms -such as biological motion perception- appear to be largely present at birth" (Parasuraman and Galster, 2013).

In other words, we're already endowed with all the tools we need to detect danger. Using these innate skills to improve self protection and situational awareness is easy.

Let's see how.

Spotting potential threats

Look at the chart below,  which silhouette do you find the most alarming?

Like most people, even non-specialists, you probably quickly recognized the characteristic silhouette of the sharks.

This is possible thanks to our pattern matching and recognition ability.

Pattern recognition is our capacity to do classification based on features such as size, shape, colour, etc... It has been around since our earliest ancestors learned which animals they could approach to hunt and which they should flee from.

Our capabilities to detect potentially dangerous animals goes even further.

Take a look a the following picture and note what you spot first.

Studies in psychology and neuroscience have shown that when presented with images containing threatening elements, such as snakes or spiders, and non-threatening elements, such as flowers and butterflies, people tend to locate more quickly and more accurately the threatening elements than the non-threatening elements (see for example: Ohman, Flykt and Esteve, 2001).

To put it differently, in visually noisy environments, the average search time for threatening elements is less than for non-threatening ones.

Investigations further suggest that "humans share a predisposition to preferentially direct attention toward potentially threatening animal stimuli" (Ohman, Flykt and Esteve, 2001).

In other words, we have innate detection mechanisms for a number of threatening stimuli. This would explain, for example, why garden hoses often frighten young children, and why people have a general fear of insects that superficially resemble spiders (for example, roaches).

But that's not all.

Signs of danger

As far as pattern identification goes, the recognition of facial features is an exceptionally strong aptitude of the human brain. That's why we're so much better at remembering faces than names.

Take a look at the following picture, which face grabs your attention?

Experiments have shown that faces with an angry expression (lower left corner in the image) are usually detected more quickly and maintain attention more effectively than neutral or happy faces (Hansen & Hansen, 1988; Feldman-Wustefeld & Schubo, 2014).

The ability to detect threats is a (perceptual) process that takes place unconsciously and automatically below the level of conscious awareness, in parallel with other visual and cognitive processes (Ohman, Flykt and Esteve, 2001).

So, over the course of time, since the rise of hominids on earth, several millions years ago, we've hard-wired ourselves to recognize signals of danger so deeply that it's become automatic and unconscious.

And this capacity to detect threats is associated with other natural mechanisms to ensure our survival.

For example, people tend to over-react to sudden changes (but they under react to changes that occur slowly and over time) ; similarly, we over-react to immediate threats (but under-react to long-term threats) (Schneier, 2006).

"The human nervous system is 'designed' by evolution to respond to immediate physical danger" (Ehrlich and Ornstein, 1988)

Psychophysiological responses to fear stimuli (snakes, spiders, and angry faces for example) involve the release of stress hormones (such as cortisol and epinephrine) which induce the notorious 'fight-or-flight response.

More specifically, the release of these hormones in the blood stream (the famous 'adrenaline dump') sparks a chain reaction which prepare the body for immediate violent muscular action:
  • Acceleration of heart and and respiratory rates
  • Production of glucose (energy for the muscle)
  • Cortisol turns fatty acids into available energy
  • Constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body
  • Dilatation of blood vessels for muscles

In other words, threatening features are not only more quickly spotted but they also trigger the adrenal reaction which prepares the body for and gives it the energy-boost to run away or fight in order to escape dangerous situations.

This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view because swift reactions are key to survive situations of danger (see Dorn, Shepherd et al., 2014).

Threats, though, don't always look like what we expect and predators (particularly human ones) are often experts at deception.

So humans have developed further abilities.

Spotting the odd thing out

Take a look at the following pictures, what catches your eye?

Bird on a background of reeds and stalks of grass

In picture #1, what immediately grabbed your attention was the white bird against a darker background made of regular elements.

Against a background of sharp repeating lines formed by reeds and stalks of grass, the distinct shape of a bird easily catch our eye in picture #2.

Picture #3 is a bit more complex, but among the series of dots, what you probably spotted first was the star. Then came the arrow.

What these examples show is that we pick 'breaks' in patterns much faster than we can actually identify patterns (compare this to the previous tests).

In other words, as much as our pattern recognition abilities are fascinating, our capacity to detect breaks in any given pattern is amazing.

Our brains are expert at noticing what's odd to a given context.

So, how does this apply to self-defence?

Establishing a 'Baseline'

In the examples above, the 'context' was the dark background of geometrical shapes, the repeating lines formed by reeds and stalks of grass, or the dots on the white dices, and the reeds.

In a broader sense, the 'context' could also be the regular noise of a river or the usual noise of our car's engine, the typical flow of people coming and going or the way we usually organize things on the shelves in our houses.

In other words, 'context' can be our daily lives and habits. This 'normality' is called 'baseline'.

"Every place, every environment, including the people in those places, have a baseline. What is a baseline? It’s what’s 'normal' there". (Ken Jorgustin, Modern Survival Blog)

So, a good way to detect potential threats, is actually to try to identify/establish a baseline and, instead of looking for signs of danger, let your ability to spot breaks in this pattern (which is much stronger than pattern recognition as we've seen) do the work in the background of your mind. Any anomaly will become apparent (that's how road signaling works).

Yes, you got me right. I'm telling you that it's better to focus your effort on knowing/understanding what's normal in a given situation/place (that's the 'baseline') and let your intuition spot the anomalies, rather than looking directly for signs of danger.

Science tells us it works better that way.

Here is how:

Cognitive dissonance and Survival signals

Have you ever notice how we get a funny feeling when some things aren't as usual, or in their usual place, in our house?

Think of the surprise (and anxiety) you would feel if, as you get home, you saw footprints on the floor whereas no one but you is supposed to be home!

unexpected footprints on the floor

The state of discomfort that we feel in these moments is triggered by new information (unusual things/unusual place) that conflicts with an existing schema (the usual, the way we thought things were).

This phenomenon, commonly used in thriller movies to stir up emotions, is called cognitive dissonance.

Interestingly, cognitive dissonance is associated with activity in a part of the brain (left frontal cortex) which is itself associated with anger.

This is why our immediate reaction to instances of cognitive dissonance is not 'joy', 'happiness' or 'laughter' but 'annoyance', 'irritation' or even 'anger'.

"Anger is an activating emotion. By this, I mean that anger motivates someone to act or do something about what is triggering this strong emotion in them. It gives them an almost irresistible urge to take action". (Bohdi Sanders, The Wisdom Warrior).

Like emotional stress, anger triggers the release of stress hormones which prompt body and mind into survival/combat mode.

In the grand scheme of things, human-beings are actually quite good at sensing troubles (as long as ego, alcohol or drugs don't get in the way).

Some call it 'sixth sense', 'gut feeling' or 'intuition', the fact is people do get alarmed when something is wrong in a given situation.

In one of the most influential book in the self defence industry (I strongly recommend), The Gift of Fear - survival signals that protect us from violence (1997), Gavin de Becker details the cognitive process behind intuition.

Intuition is the journey from A to Z without stopping at any other letter along the way. It is knowing without knowing why. (Gavin de Becker The Gift of Fear)

According to de Becker, we are experts at reading people and predicting human behaviour is no more than reading the signals others give us. We've been doing it since we were born.

"Predicting the routine behavior of adults in the same culture is so simple, in fact, that we rarely even bother to do it consciously". (Gavin de Becker The Gift of Fear)

We intuitively evaluate people and situations all the time and predicting violent behaviour is quite easy. The problem is we often don't listen to that inner voice.

So, in the unconscious part of our minds there always are perceptual processes that constantly scan and evaluate our environment (people, situations, etc) and will send signals to get our attention when something odd is spotted.

These signals ('messengers of intuition' as de Becker call them) are, in decreasing order of urgency:
  • Fear
  • Apprehension
  • Suspicion
  • Hesitation
  • Doubt
  • Gut feelings
  • Hunches
  • Curiosity
  • Anxiety

All these signals obviously require our attention but it should be kept in mind that they are just messages designed to prompt us to consciously re-evaluate a situation, make an informed judgment, and take the appropriate course of action. They are not 'panic buttons'.

Note that 'worry' is not in the list. Worry is noise that obscure the signals sent by our intuition (much detailed explanations about the importance of intuition and how it operates can be found in de Becker's book).

Now, you're probably thinking "all well and good but how do I apply, in a practical way, these things in my daily life?"

Let's see how we can use these innate abilities to improve our Situational Awareness.

Improving our Situational Awareness with natural threat detection mechanisms

We've seen that our capacity to recognize patterns, particularly threatening elements, is really strong. For example, human-beings are experts at reading facial features and recognizing signs of anger and aggression. Furthermore, threatening features get preferential access to our personal 'radar'.

"Human brain can detect and react to some types of danger more rapidly and accurately than a computer" (Dorn, Shepherd et al., Staying Alive:How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters)

Matching and recognizing patterns of behaviour ('pre-incident indicators') or objects (such as the shape of a weapon in a pocket) is largely based on experience.

In other words, we can associate 'sharks' with 'danger' because we've learnt that sharks are dangerous.

What this means is that rehearsing/drilling various scenarios should be a key part of self-defence training.

"If it's not so new you will be able to handle it better" (Cade Courtley, A Navy SEAL's Secrets to Surviving Any Disaster)

"Our brains search, under extreme stress, for an appropriate survival response and sometimes choose the wrong one, like deer that freeze in the headlights of a car" says Amanda Ripley in her 2008 Time Magazine article How to Survive A Disaster.

And "the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly run it through rehearsals beforehand" (Ripley, 2008).

The fact that "you're more likely to be alerted to specific signs of danger more quickly by applying pattern matching and recognition" (Dorn, Shepherd et al., 2014), has somehow misled the self-defence industry to focus its message on 'look for threat signals'.

It appears that doing the opposite would be more productive.

Establishing a 'baseline' and letting our natural threat detection mechanisms do the work, is both more efficient and less demanding in terms of 'attentional resources' (remember, attention is a limited resource).

Now, don't get me wrong, you still have to pay attention to your surroundings to be able to notice anomalies.

"if you don't ignore what you see and hear, your brain can detect danger" (Dorn, Shepherd et al., 2014)

But, you don't need to be actively using lots of attentional resources.

First, because the processes I described in this article are unconscious and automatic; second because you already know what's normal.

That's our everyday life.

Except in very unfortunate and rare cases, the vast majority of people we meet every day won't try to mug, or rape, or kill us. So, unconsciously, we know "what's normal there".

We don't need any training for that.

As I mentioned, we still need to pay attention to our surroundings in order for our threat detection mechanisms (which are all perceptual processes) to be able to pick up any ripple in our baseline or any signs of danger.

What we need, though, is not intense awareness (not even 'situational awareness' as taught in most self defence classes) but 'soft awareness'.

The 'soft awareness' I'm talking about is akin to the one we use when driving a car. Looking right and left, a glance in the mirror...

So, for example, if you look regularly over your shoulder -very much like you look left and right before crossing a street- you would probably spot anyone who's been following you for for some time.

Note that I said "have a look" not "look for". It's not really about looking (or listening), it's all about seeing (or hearing). And that makes all the difference.

Rather than to encourage people to be in a constant heightened state of awareness -which would drive most of them insane- I personally prefer to build on natural abilities and reactions, and to focus a scenario-led training on how to 'switch' swiftly to 'combat mode'.

I'm not the only proponent of the 'switch', Lee Morrison (Urban Combatives), Stewart McGill (Urban Krav Maga), among others, teach similar things.

How do you personally train to improve your reaction to violence? Is there any drills do you use that have proved particularly effective?


  1. I do a lot of "Ambush" approaches and the student will lisen, turn, and make a decision on weither to attack,run, or recognize a friendly approach.

    1. Hi Richard,

      That's a great way to train. Pre-arranged scenarios have their place in the training but pushing the students to improvise in the face of incertitude is definitely an important point.

      Thanks for sharing.

  2. Just wanted to say thanks for posting this. there is alot of new information here for me and is very useful knowledge that everyone can benefit from knowing.

    i have a question.
    how would I be able to train these concepts such as the soft focus as i'm begging to realise that it is just as if not more important that the combat skills themselves but wouldn't know what specifically to do to train them effectively.

    anything to answer this would be great.


  3. Hi Lucas,

    You're welcome.

    One way to work on soft focus is to behave as if you were driving your car. So, for example, as you go through the entrance door of your house, slow down and look both sides very like you would do when you exit your driveway to go on the main road.

    Another way to work on that is to try to focus on your peripheral vision while talking to a friend (better tell him/her in advance because they'll think something's wrong with you though).

    You should find interesting stuff there:


  4. Oops.. I used the wrong link in my last comment.. This is the one I wanted to share: