Fear of mass shootings has prompted some companies, schools and government officials to embrace training programs that promise to distract would-be killers, turning victims into potential saviors. While it may sound a little crazy, the idea is to create a chaotic environment so the shooter will miss and more people will have a better chance of surviving.
"The objective is to not allow (the shooter) to focus on a target," said Greg Crane, a former SWAT police officer and founder of ALICE Training Institute in Ohio. "Noise movement, distance and distraction come into play. If you cause hesitation, if you cause misses, you can cause a movement from offense to defense, that makes (the shooter) vulnerable."
Crane's firm has been training hundreds of schools and companies to switch gears from the "shelter-in-place" drill that is still standard for many districts to a more active role in dealing with danger.
"Everyone has the will to survive, but in so many of the past events I've heard that the people didn't know what to do," Crane said. "The option of securing in place wasn't available and trying to get out of there wasn't available. We are teaching what do you do if contact is made. That's where the science comes in with having to understand what does it take to accurately shoot someone."
Members of the military are trained to run toward, rather than away, from the source of weapons fire as a way of defeating an enemy. But the idea of training the general public how to handle a shooting incident is a new concept.
Our brains are wired to freeze in place, or to run away. This ancient programming allowed early humans to survive predators, according to Joseph LeDoux, director of the Emotional Brain Institute and professor of science at New York University.
"We freeze because it's an innate thing that animals do, including people, when we encounter sudden danger," LeDoux said. "The purpose is that predators respond to movement. If you are far away and move it's easier to detect on the horizon. If you are close by, staying still could buy yourself time."
Freezing is not a choice, LeDoux says, but rather a built-in impulse controlled by circuits in the brain involving the amygdala and its neural partners. In comparison, the kind of thinking required to distract somebody shooting at you requires the use of evolutionarily-newer circuits in the neocortex part of the brain.
LeDoux proposes a different kind of brain training to get people to switch from ancient freeze mode to modern fight mode.
"We have to get people out of the freeze first," LeDoux said. "Maybe we could train people to think of a trigger for ‘run, hide, fight.' If we are frozen and can't think clearly, we can't cycle through our mind for our options. That second or two that you buy may be the difference between life and death."