Startle: what it is and how it affects your performance

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectation; we fall to the level of our training.”
— Archilochus, Greek soldier, 650 BC.

Because in every battle the Greeks were always outmanned, out-weaponed, usually ambushed and fighting for survival, they understood the importance of intensive training. And whether they knew it or not they were pioneers in understanding how fear and startle affect human performance. They trained with those factors in mind because their very life depended on it. This phrase is often bantered in US Navy Seal training, and we introduce our Upset, Prevention, and Recovery Training (UPRT) at my Airline with the quote above. Pilot resilience in the face of adversity is what this article is about.

When is the last time you heard “Whoop, Whoop, Pull UP!” or “Wind Shear, Wind Shear!” or a loud bang accompanied by a breathtaking yaw or loss of thrust? Have you been in 90 degrees of bank on final following that Gulfstream? Or most likely looked up from your iPad and the airplane was not in the attitude you were expecting? The Greeks survived as the underdogs for centuries. In aviation you never know when YOU will be the underdog. How far will you fall before your training catches you?

Your inner caveman

As a pilot and instructor/evaluator at a major airline I sit in the greatest human performance laboratory in the world: the full flight simulator. Instructing in the aircraft is great fun but I can’t, or hopefully don’t, bring out your inner caveman. Simulator technology and realism these days is astounding. In a simulator I sit three feet behind humans and bombard them with challenges and stressors, some so difficult and startling that I can get to the caveman buried in every pilot. But it’s at one G, zero knots and sitting in one of the largest training facilities in the world. There it is safe, but in the air, there is no freeze button. In the simulator, we can stop, debrief, regroup and move forward with precise objectives met and lessons learned.

Flying in any form can be an unforgiving endeavor. Any given flight is ripe with threats, distractors, weather, mechanical, and technical issues that we can plan for, but many you don’t see coming. Most importantly, fate doesn’t take the pilot’s skill or experience into account or how sharp you’re feeling that day. Emergencies, upsets, and just plain mistakes happen to great pilots. As the saying goes, “it’s all great, until it isn’t.” History has shown mishaps happen in all phases of flight, and to all experience levels.

How we handle them rests in large part on our training and preparation. Those are things that we gain from experience, investing in continuing education and hard work. But working against us is that we can tend to be a bit arrogant. I know, say it ain’t so, but we all like to think we’re bullet proof; “not gonna happen to me” or “I’m smarter than that.” Granted, some swagger is required to slip the surly bonds. But seldom do we talk about or even recognize our weaknesses as humans. Even more seldom do pilots understand how their weaknesses can make them vulnerable and a bad situation worse.

Caveman
Under duress, your inner caveman can come out.

Everyone is different but one thing we all have in common is your ancestor’s brain, a caveman brain. As an Air Force trained safety officer and investigator, I sat on several boards and investigated many accidents,  unfortunately some with fatalities. The first question on everybody’s mind of course is why? And though every case was different, and any number of the above factors could have contributed, in almost every case, somewhere in the chain of events there could be found a common denominator: a caveman.

I think we can all agree that throughout history we’ve been changing, adapting in many ways. Statistics are clear—we are evolving physically. As a result of better medical care, nutrition, health, and physical science, we’ve become ever more physically resilient. As a species we are larger, stronger, faster, and living longer, healthier lives than even 500 years ago. That’s the great news! Now for the bad news: your brain has not kept pace; you’re basically still a caveman.

Indeed, we’ve gotten smarter or you wouldn’t be reading this. Your brain has gotten bigger, not the least of which is the cerebral cortex, which has so much to do with your conscious thought, memory, attention, and perception. With a larger brain there is more room for neurons, the pathways for communication. But with size comes a larger energy demand. Your brain is the biggest energy draw of any of your organs. It’s roughly only two percent of your body mass but requires a whopping 20% of your glucose stores simply to keep the lights on. Unlike your muscles, where excess energy is stored for rapid available use, the brain has to place an order and have it pumped in. That’s why after a mentally demanding task—such as a long FAA exam or a challenging flight with weather and numerous threats—you’re exhausted. You weren’t moving, but your brain sure was and ran your tank down.

Your caveman’s brain is little concerned with energy management and size. It really doesn’t care about our IQ or our ever-broadening range of academic accomplishments and brilliance. What it cares about is how we assimilate and process incoming stimuli in response to the barrage of visual, audible, and tactile information. Yes, your brain has gotten bigger, but it essentially possesses the same anatomy of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our brain still processes incoming information the way we did hundreds of thousands of years ago. In short, we’re still programed to survive at all costs, to run our breakfast down and feast for a week and then stay alive until the next one.

The simple fact that you are reading this is proof that somewhere in your family tree’s gene pool someone realized that it was better to run and hide from a saber tooth tiger than poke him with a sharp stick. As I always told my daughters growing up, we learn by doing, as long as the doing doesn’t kill us. The brain had to adapt for survival. Our “fight, flight, or freeze” response is still alive and well! Think of it as your “first responder.”

Of course, that was fine when we were on the lookout for that saber tooth tiger. A complete adrenalin and cortisol dump could mean the difference between getting back to the cave or being an afternoon snack. While today’s typical daily threats are much less lethal, unfortunately many are still processed as if your life depended on it. Think of the terrified public speaker (you might be one). Hands and feet dripping with sweat, heart rate doubled, respiration rate tripled, vision and hearing narrowed and intensely focused, stomach in a knot, and all because he or she holds a microphone and has to toast the bride and groom. Hardly life or death, right? It’s because their inner caveman has just hijacked their amygdala.

Why doesn’t my modern brain stop my caveman brain?

Today’s brain is often described as two separate entities: your “modern brain,” which makes logical, executive decisions, and your “prehistoric” brain, your survival caveman. It’s a remarkable story but sometimes a dysfunctional partnership. The way we process any information and stimuli in the brain can be incredibly complicated but is wonderfully elegant. This “machine” contains on average 86 billion neurons, cells capable of attaching to 1,000 buddy neurons and moving information chemically and electrically at a 1,000th of a second. Your limbic system resides close to your brainstem and includes various structures, all involved in emotional and motivational processes. It is directly responsible for telling your endocrine system (hormone producers) what to do and directing your autonomic nervous system and bodily functions. Your brain works extremely well together MOST of the time, but when your modern brain doesn’t have time to get a handle on your caveman brain, things can get out of control.

First let’s talk about the senses you primarily experience when you fly. The most powerful, hands down, is vision. Images that are seen through the eyes are sent through optic nerves to the thalamus, or your switchboard. The thalamus sits in the middle of your limbic system and acts as a sensory information hub. From there images are routed to the visual cortex. Additional senses, such as smell and sound, are processed in a similar manner but none faster than sight. Along with the visual cortex in the back of the brain it sends it to the hippocampus which is part of your limbic system. The hippocampus is our hard drive or filing system (memory and emotion). It also forwards on the image to the prefrontal cortex, which is our CPU (Central Processing Unit). The frontal cortex structures are where our higher-level “executive” decisions, computations and reasoning, are made.

This anatomy is what is referred to as your “modern” brain. It tries to filter and inhibit irrelevant and inappropriate responses to stimuli and make “rational” decisions based on past associations. It also acts as our RAM, or short-term recall—like when you remember a frequency change just long enough to get it dialed into your com panel. As your modern brain receives the image it goes about its work quickly. It scans its files for information based on previously stored memory and emotion of the event or image. It could be a memory from a minute ago, such as how we learn new tasks, or it can reel back the clock to early childhood to try to find a match.

However, your modern brain is not be the only one looking at the information. Along with the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, the thalamus has secretly sent the information to our caveman threat analysis team for review. Remember your “first responders,” better known as your amygdalae, got word of the situation before the modern brain. You have two amygdalae, one in each temporal lobe by your ears. They are small in comparison to other brain anatomy and often get a bad rap as your fear police, but they are responsible for good things as well as bad. Arousal, pleasure, as well as fear and anger are recognized, and the emotions associated with them.

Because they receive so much sensory input, they build strong emotional associations and memories with images, smells and even pain. Research use of fMRIs has shown heightened activity in the amygdalae in subjects presented with pictures of angry faces, threatening animals, and insects, as well as attractive, smiling images of humans or cuddly puppies. But here is the problem: your caveman has a hot line to the autonomic system. When you are startled, your amygdalae don’t wait on your slower modern brain to decide if that is a bunny, or a tiger popping out of the brush. You need a head start for the cave! As quickly as 14 milliseconds! It takes 35 times longer for the information to get to the modern brain. Your prehistoric brain has you at a full sprint well before your modern brain said, “chill, it’s a bunny.” The fight, flight, or freeze response was activated and you cannot undo its effects.

The psychomotor effect

The amygdalae chose the most conservative approach to survive and has fully activated your endocrine system, which starts dumping all kinds of life saving hormones into your body. Your adrenal glands unload a healthy dose of adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol. More than any other hormones in our systems, these alter our physical state the most. They shut down unneeded organs and systems. Your body needs all the blood it can get for our large muscle groups.

It unleashes its glycogen stores to feed the energy draw for maximum effort. Your lung’s alveoli and blood capillaries spring open to draw in and export more oxygen. Your heart and respiration rates soar with the influx of high-performance stimulants, as does your blood pressure. Your pupils dilate for better eyesight. Certain parts of your brain tone down to conserve glycogen for the muscles. Your hands and feet begin to sweat for better grip. All in all, a fantastic performance cocktail designed to give you superhuman attributes.

No matter how much logic the modern brain tries to use on your body to convince it otherwise, the hormones flowed, your fight, flight, or freeze instinct has been activated, and it won’t go away for a while. The effects of the superhuman cocktail can wreak havoc in your body for up to four hours. That’s a lot of stress on your organs for no reason—especially if you are strapped into a cockpit.

The caveman in the cockpit

Because of the unique nature of the aviation environment, other senses have major inputs in the cockpit as well as vision. Loud noises, warnings and alarms, radio chatter, and unusual smells all contribute to a chaotic environment that if not handled quickly and accurately can create the amygdalae hijacking. Remember, I said that startle starts to shut down parts of your brain. If the additional distractions are overwhelming, the limbic system starts to shut down the modern brain! Logic gets overridden and there is nothing left to prevent the activations of your fight, flight, or freeze instinct.

For a pilot, an amygdalae hijack comes with some very insidious and dangerous physiological effects. As if the adrenalin cocktail raging through your body is not enough, now your vision begins to narrow. You are totally focused at what you’re looking at, but your peripheral vision is all but gone. The tunnel you are looking through is but a small scene of the big picture on the instrument panel and controls in front of you.

Amygdalae don’t care for loud sounds either. Part of the hormone cocktail begins to tone down and filters out the warnings and radio, as well as important conversation. Accident reports reveal that pilots were not even aware that the “gear not down warning” or “terrain” warnings were even going off. I see it all the time. When pilots become startled and task saturated, sounds are often the first things that get dropped out of the bucket of situational awareness. Natural effects of an amygdalae hijack and at the worst possible time! So now what?

Power up your instincts—don’t get hijacked

Emergences, unusual attitudes, upsets, and system failures are part of aviation. Although it is the safest mode of travel and now has the highest safety record in history, crap happens. Every upset or emergency comes with some level of “startle,” from the subtle leaking hydraulic reservoir to engine failure on takeoff. Though many pilots are taught different nuances of this approach, just a simple three-step strategy can shut down the amygdalae and prevent the hijack.

Situation: It’s a clear, moonlit night. You’re flying your light twin for some landing currency. After the takeoff checklist has been accomplished and passing through 2,000 feet AGL, a loud noise grips your attention, followed by significant yaw and roll of the aircraft to the left, quick and simultaneous activations of the master caution, master warning, and engine fire lights, along with the loud warning alarm. You have the aircraft!

1. Fly the airplane! Don’t let the caveman take the controls.

Break the startle and say it out loud! “FLY THE PLANE (insert name).” Or in the case of an unexpected attitude or upset, “UPSET!” Verbalizing something to yourself is a powerful key in shutting down the amygdalae and getting your modern brain involved.

The immediate threat to life and survival is keeping the aluminum tube in the air. Fly the plane—do that pilot crap Mav! Do what it takes to level the wings, pitch for flying airspeed, and bring the yaw under control with rudder. That means fly it, no autopilot. Saying something out loud that triggers these actions of startle recovery is the first step in any unusual or abnormal procedure. It does several things for the pilot. First and foremost, it prevents you from freezing, or making some rash first response decision when your body is dealing with the surprise, startle, and inevitable adrenaline dump and activation of the fight, fight, or freeze response.

Second, in telling yourself to fly and not allowing the aircraft to continue to depart from normal flight, it fights the amygdalae for control of the frontal cortex. In almost all cases your flying skills are instinctual at this point and your training must get involved. You’ve got to get your modern brain working. Your stick and rudder inputs are natural from years of practice and hours in the air; you just have to find them quickly. You roll the wings level and add rudder to stabilize the flight path without thought of how to do it.

Our initial responses, in this case our hand flying skills, make us resistant to the emotion of fear coming from the caveman and doesn’t allow him/her to take over. Instinct resides in the hippocampus and is chosen by the modern brain, not the caveman. Being proficient was the first step in a successful recovery, but you had to break and tame the effects of the startle. The aircraft is now stable, flying and for the moment safe. Your modern brain is engaged and is winning the struggle! Now what?

2. Silence the warning!

You know something is wrong. Based on the action of the plane, sounds, and lights it’s generating, your modern brain is busily processing the event as a possible catastrophic engine failure. Take some deep breaths. Your hippocampus opened up the bottle in instinctual flying and the immediate danger is over. So, get rid of the noise.

As I said before, your amygdalae do not like loud noises. So, get rid of that agitating chatter or warning alarm. It’s no longer helpful—you know you have a problem and if you let the warning continue to echo in your ears, your caveman brain will completely tone it out in an effort to direct full attention to other problems. Not silencing the alarm has additional dangers because if you do not re-arm it you may never know if something new goes wrong. Now with the cockpit quieter, you continue to calm down your caveman brain and free up the modern brain’s powerful logic and can begin to calmly assess the situation. The second step in combating the hijack is now successful.

3. Confirm the emergency.

As pilots—as humans—we hate not being able to control things, especially our emotions. It’s just a matter of life and your brain’s prehistoric anatomy that your flight, fight, or freeze instincts were fully engaged. Now you are sitting, strapped into a confined space. You’re not going to “flight” anywhere. There is nobody to “fight” and because of your awareness of your caveman you’ve prevented yourself from “freezing” up. Well done—you prevented the amygdalae hijack!

However, your body is amped by the overflow of superhuman cocktail of hormones that your limbic team automatically dumped into your system. You could lift a bus, you could outrun a saber tooth tiger, but not from that seat. This is why it is so important to get control of your emotions early or this cocktail will be your undoing. You’ve been successful to this point in the critical steps required to bring the situation back to a safe condition and under control. It literally only took seconds, even though it might seem like an eternity, because of temporal distortion (which is a side effect of startle). But it’s far from over.

The next steps you are going to take are almost completely carried out in your logically thinking modern brain: calmly confirming what the state of the systems are, what immediate actions to take, what checklist to run. How to fix or control what’s left and safely bring the situation to a conclusion is critical. Using your available resources now (checklists and POH) will help you calmly proceed. Many poor decisions have been made during this phase of the emergency or upset, which leads to a misdiagnosis because the modern brain is still fighting the effects of the cocktail. Confirming the real problem is the real problem!

Conclusion

Here is where I can no longer help you. From here you are now at the level of the training that Archilochus was talking about in 650 BC. Your experience, your systems knowledge, your immediate action memorization, and your upset and emergency procedure practice is where you are, nothing more, nothing less. If you are the kind of pilot that tenaciously pursues knowledge, doggedly prepares for the unexpected, continues to practice emergencies and upsets in simulator training as well as chair flying and visualization, then you will be prepared at this level. If you aren’t, how far will you fall before you hit your base level of training and will it be enough?

Being a pilot is an incredible responsibility, even more so if someone is looking at you from the other seat, or you have a full load of unsuspecting passengers just trying to get to the in-laws for Thanksgiving. “It’s all great, until it isn’t.” Are you ready for the saber tooth tiger?

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