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Street Smart Self-Defense Skill: Threat Discernment - A Whole Brain Approach

Photo by Justin Natividad on Unsplash

Walking around thinking everyone is out to get you is not being street smart. Being street smart means you can navigate your world with more freedom, boldness and joy. ⁠

I've been in the martial arts and self-defense world for over 30 years. But when I moved to Los Angeles in 2011 it became clear that what I had been teaching, what I call "mainstream self-defense" was not practical for day-to-day life. So I developed Asphalt Anthropology to help people sharpen their skills to navigate dense, public spaces.

Being street smart is discerning real threats from perceived threats.

This discernment can be challenging because we are constantly being primed for fear of our environment and of other people. We see this broadly in media with constant replays of violence and emphasis on everything we should be afraid of. "If it bleeds it leads" is the foundation of media. This is true now more than ever in an increasingly crowded media landscape fighting for eyeballs where money is generally only made when clicks happen. (1)

We see this very specifically in the self-defense world where an abundance of CCTV video has provided cheap, urgent and attention grabbing marketing opportunities for self-defense instructors. That type of marketing might fill classes, but I'm not convinced it actually helps students.

The bad news: An over stimulated threat center is actually WORSE at predicting threats and it narrows your ability to come up with solutions on the fly. (2)

But here is the good news. We are actually wired to perceive and respond to threats. Millions of years of evolution have hard-wired our brains and our guts to detect threats. We may not be able to consciously articulate the threat, but ours minds and bodies know. (3)

Of course we don't always act on these perceptions of threat. Perhaps our social conditioning gets in the way. Or perhaps chronic stress or unresolved trauma inhibit the communication pathways and our response system. (2) Or something so novel occurs that our brain doesn't know how to interpret it. (3).

Top Down vs Bottom Up Processing

There are two approaches to help us better discern threats: Top Down and Bottom Up.

Top down processing involves our thinking rational brain. It requires the ability to recognize, process and respond appropriately to a stimulus whether it be a threat or an opportunity. Having this knowledge is essential to cutting freeze time when our brains are processing unfamiliar patterns.

Much of the self-defense field focuses on this approach. The seminal books that break down these patters are Gavin de Becker's Gift of Fear and Van Horne and Riley's Left of Bang. Victim grooming, body language, proxemics and pre-attack cues are a part of Asphalt Anthropology and I've written previously about how to seamlessly gamify these skills so that anyone can embody them.

Bottom up processing on the other hand engages your primitive brain - the part of your brain that has evolved to be a quick processor of threats and opportunities. It works much faster than our top down processes but is also prone to make generalizations and be influenced by unconscious bias which can lead to flawed assessments. That is why it is important to exercise both parts of our brain.

For example, if you have been conditioned to (consciously or unconsciously, doesn't matter) to view a Black person as a threat, you might instinctively clutch your purse a little tighter as they approach. That's the primitive brain at work. But the thinking brain allows you to stop, take a breath and assess for actual danger: Where is a perceived threat's hands? Where are they looking? What is their walking trajectory? That's actually a lot of information to take in and process in a matter of seconds, so you want to make sure the various parts of your brain are working together. Before we move on to how to do that, I want to wrap up this example of walking by a Black person with the reminder that if you practice these skills you will start to notice that Black people are not walking around primed to jump you.

The first step to enhance the abilities of your fast processing primitive brain is probably the most boring, self-defense advice ever:

  • get sleep

  • exercise

  • eat well

  • take frequent news breaks

Not as sexy as learning jujitsu, but your brain is your best weapon, so treat it well.

In addition to that foundation, here are some evidence-bases exercises that research shows enhances your ability to perceive both threat and opportunity. Just as important, practicing these exercises set you up to creatively adapt in the moment to the specific circumstances - because a pre-set checklist of how to's is falls short in reality.

🧠 Bottom up Exercises

👂Mindfulness of Sound

Sit in a “quiet” place with limited distractions. Close your eyes and notice the sounds around you. To start, just try this for a minute or two. After you become more comfortable with this exercise, kick it up a notch and start doing it in increasingly more active places, such as a more boisterous event like a party or a stadium (post Covid of course!). (4) I recommend keeping your eyes open in public spaces.

⬅️ ➡️Attention In and Out

Sit quietly with your eyes closed. Starting at the top of your head, scan for any sensations as you move your attention through your body to your toes. Don't try to change anything - just notice. When you complete this cycle, then focus your attention out. Keep your eyes closed if you can, and listen for sounds. Listen to the "layers" of sounds; it might be the whirl of an overhead ceiling fan, the buzz of a refrigerator in the next room and the further sound of a car honking down the street. After a few moments, bring your attention back to your body. Scan your body once again and just see what you notice; perhaps a knot in your shoulder, the softness of a cushion or a twinge in your knee. Again, the goal is not to change anything, but just to notice. Repeat this cycle of toggling your attention between your body and the outside world a few more times. (4)

🤗 Belly Hugs

Seriously, this has to be my favorite. This comes from Dr. Stan Tatkin, a neurobiological researcher and clinician who specializes in couples work. When reuniting with your partner at the end of the day, take a moment, as soon as possible after coming through the door to connect with your parter. Specifically, put down anything you are holding and embrace, belly to belly. Don't allow kids or pets to squeeze in until you and your partner feel a mutual "sigh of relief". This exercise signals to your primitive brain that this person is safe. Having the experience of truly turning off with another person allows you to truly relax and re-set, leading you to more resilience.



(3) Thinking, Fast and Slow. 2013. English. D. Kahneman


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