How the Flinch Response can Save Your Ass

“In battle, if you you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.” – Miyamoto Musashi

Perhaps, but not necessarily.

Flinch reactions to a broken baseball bat flying into a crowd of spectators.

I posted the above quote by Musashi on our Facebook fan page and asked for people’s thoughts. It was kind of a trick question for those that had been through some of our Personal Protective Measures courses since we deal quite a bit with the flinch reaction. Some of the thoughts were pretty interesting and I was told that it was my turn to comment, so…I decided to put my thoughts down in this blog post.

What is a Flinch?

Very simply put, the flinch is a protective reaction to a stimulus that is introduced into your awareness too quickly. If the stimulus is introduced gradually, there is no flinch.

What Causes a Flinch?

We flinch from three forms of stimuli:

  • Visual – what we see. Example: the baseball bat picture above.
  • Auditory – what we hear. Example: You get into your car, start the engine, and suddenly the radio is blasting rock music and it startles you.
  • Tactile – what we feel via touch. Example: a friend walks up behind you unseen, unheard, and suddenly slaps you on the shoulder to say hello.

You don’t flinch from taste or smell. The closest thing to a flinch in those cases would be your gag reflex.

Social Understanding of a Flinch

There are many survival based bodily functions that are misunderstood and therefore given negative associations in our modern culture. Many of these functions are mistakenly and unfortunately associated with cowardice. The flinch reaction is one of those functions. This poor logic states that if you flinch, it must mean you were scared. If you were scared, it was because had fear. If you had fear, it’s because only cowards experience fear.

That’s bullshit!

It is also dangerous thinking. Especially for the person that must face violence. Imagine how ineffective a cop or soldier would be if they associated flinching with cowardice. Imagine how much more effective they would be if they understood that flinching is one of the body’s natural reactions designed to save his life.

Luckily, the correct information on these processes are coming to light more and more often. And because of that, there are less chances for ridicule among peers (especially for military and law enforcement) as well as less psychological issues stemming from thinking that flinching is a symptom of cowardice.

It’s said that the definition of bravery is being afraid, but doing what is needed anyway. So, drill this into your skull: everyone experiences fear on some level. Everyone…everyone…flinches.

Anatomy of a Flinch

A stimulus gets introduced to your awareness too quickly via sight, sound, touch or any combination of the three.

The introduction happens too fast for cognitive thought. What this means is that in terms of self defense, it will be very unlikely that you will access a complex motor skill (a martial arts technique). Your complex motor skills, all the “moves” you know, are held within your cognitive brain. This is where the, “when he does this, I’ll do that” movements are held.

Your reaction to the stimulus is a flinch. The part of the brain that is in control here is the amygdala. The amygdala is the center of fear, aggression, emotion, etc. It recognizes the danger and says, “Oh shit! Protect yourself!” The physical result is a gross motor response.

Some of the general common physical characteristics of a flinch are:

  • the body crouches and lowers its center of gravity to get ready to move
  • the shoulders shrug and the head lowers, sometimes called “turtle-ing,” to protect the brain – the body’s command center
  • the target area on your body will attempt to move away from the danger
  • the arms and hands will move to either cover the target area or to intercept the incoming danger
  • if intercepting danger, the hands will intersect the line of sight between your eyes and the threat (knife, fist, attack dog, etc.)

That is not a comprehensive list, but you can see several of those behaviors in the baseball bat photo above. Notice the shrugged shoulders. The movement of the body away from the bat. Notice that everyone’s forearms are in basically the same natural position to protect the head.

The great thing about the flinch as a protection system is that you are born with it. You don’t have to learn it. It’s your body’s fastest response to danger. So rather than trying to replace it with a cognitively learned complex motor skill, you should learn to channel and use your flinch as a defensive tactic. It only takes a few quality hours of practice instead of the years required for the extreme efficiency of a martial art.

The key to channeling the flinch into a protective intercept is being able to read the subtle telegraphs that an attacker gives before he launches his attack. Check out the video below.

Was Musashi Wrong?

Not necessarily.

In the original post on Facebook, I had hoped to have someone that could look up the quote in the original Japanese and see if it actually meant “flinch” or something else, but I digress.

Perhaps the essence of what Musashi was saying was that if you can get your opponent to flinch with overwhelming stimuli, meaning hard, fast, frequent blows at multiple angles, then you can keep him on the defensive, maintain your offense, and eventually land the victory blow.

What’s important for us to understand is that the flinch can save us at the initial point of an ambush, but we better transition to a follow-up tactic quickly to take the initiative or to escape.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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