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The Startle Effect

How to fight your inner caveman and achieve peak flying performance.

The Startle Effect

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

Because the Greeks were always outmanned in battle, 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.

When was the last time you heard a loud bang accompanied by a breathtaking yaw or loss of thrust? Been in 90 degrees of bank on final following a Gulfstream? Or, more 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

Everyone is different, but one thing we all have in common is our ancestors’ brain, a caveman brain. 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. Simulator technology and realism these days are astounding. In a simulator, I bombard the crew with challenges and stressors, some so difficult and startling that I can get to the caveman buried in every pilot. But it’s at 1 G, 0 knots and sitting in one of the largest training facilities in the world. There it is safe, but there is no freeze button in the air. 


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. Emergencies, upsets and just plain mistakes happen to great pilots. As the saying goes, “It’s all great until it isn’t.”

How we handle the unexpected rests in large part on our training and preparation. Those are things 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. We all like to think we’re bulletproof. Granted, some swagger is required to slip the surly bonds. But seldom do we talk about or recognize our weaknesses as humans. Even more seldom do pilots understand how our weaknesses can make us vulnerable and a bad situation worse.

As an Air Force-trained safety officer and investigator, I sat on several boards and investigated many accidents. The first question on everybody’s mind is, of course, why? And though every case was different in almost every scenario, somewhere in the chain of events, there could be found a common denominator: a caveman.

I think we can all agree that we’ve been changing and adapting in many ways throughout history. We are evolving physically. As a result of better medical care, nutrition, health and physical science, we’ve become more physically resilient. As a species, we are larger, stronger, faster and longer lived. We lead healthier lives than ever before. However, your brain has not kept pace; you’re basically still a caveman.


Your cerebral cortex (frontal lobe) has gotten larger, which has so much to do with your conscious thought, memory, attention and perception. But with size comes a larger energy demand. Your brain is the biggest energy draw of any of your organs. It’s only 2% of your body mass but requires a whopping 20% of your glucose stores. Unlike your muscles, where excess energy is stored, the brain has to have it pumped in. That’s why after a mentally demanding task like a long, challenging flight, you’re exhausted. You weren’t moving, but your brain sure was.

Your caveman’s brain is little concerned with energy management. What it cares about is how we assimilate and process incoming stimuli in response to the barrage of visual, audible and tactile information. Your brain has gotten bigger, but it possesses the same anatomy of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It still processes incoming information the way we did tens of thousands of years ago. In short, we’re still programmed to survive at all costs.

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. 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-toothed beast. A complete adrenalin and cortisol dump could mean the difference between getting back to the cave or being an afternoon snack. But today’s typical daily threats are much less lethal. Unfortunately, you still process many of them as if your life depended on it. Think of the terrified public speaker. Hands and feet dripping with sweat, heart rate doubled, respiration rate tripled, vision and hearing narrowed, stomach in a knot, and all because they hold a microphone and have to toast the bride and groom. Hardly life or death, right? It’s because their inner caveman has taken control.


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

Today’s brain is often described as two separate entities: your “modern brain” and your “prehistoric/reptilian” brain (the caveman in you). It’s a remarkable but sometimes dysfunctional partnership. Your brain contains on average 86 billion neurons, cells capable of attaching to 1,000 buddy neurons and moving information chemically and electrically at 1,000th of a second. Your limbic system resides close to your brain stem for speed of action and is directly responsible for telling your endocrine system (hormone producers) what to do and directing your nervous system and bodily functions. The disfunction happens when your modern brain doesn’t have time to get a handle on your reptilian 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 are sent through optic nerves and to the thalamus, your switchboard. From there, images are routed to the prefrontal cortex. There, our higher-level “executive” decisions are made, computations are crunched, and reasoning is attempted.

This anatomy is your “modern” brain. It tries to filter and inhibit irrelevant and inappropriate responses to stimuli and make “rational” decisions based on past associations. As your modern brain receives the image, it goes about its work quickly. It looks for matches based on previously stored memory and emotion of the event or image. 

However, your modern brain is not the only one looking at the information. The thalamus has routed the information to our reptilian brain for review. Remember your “first responders,” better known as your amygdalae. Therein arousal and pleasure, as well as fear and anger, are recognized.


The two amygdalae build powerful emotional associations and memories, replete with images, smells and even pain. Here is the problem: your amygdalae and reptilian brain have a hotline to the limbic/endocrine 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! Your reptilian caveman brain has you at a full sprint well before your modern brain has time to say, “Chill, it’s a bunny.” Your fight, flight or freeze response was activated, and you cannot undo its effects.

The Psychomotor Effect

The amygdalae told your endocrine system to dump all kinds of life-saving hormones into your body. They unload a healthy dose of adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol. More than any other hormones in our systems, these alter our physical and psychological state the most.

They also unleash your body’s glycogen stores to feed the energy draw for maximum effort. Your heart, respiration and blood pressure soar with the influx of high-performance stimulants. Your pupils dilate for better eyesight. Certain parts of your brain tone down to conserve glycogen. Your hands and feet begin to sweat for better grip. A fantastic performance cocktail designed to give you superhuman attributes.

The effects of the superhuman cocktail do not go away quickly and can wreak havoc in your body for up to four hours—in almost every case, much longer than you needed.


The Caveman In The Cockpit

Other senses have major inputs in the cockpit as well. Loud noises, warnings and alarms, radio chatter and unusual smells all contribute to a chaotic environment. If the additional distractions are allowed to become overwhelming, the reptilian brain starts to shut down the modern brain! Logic gets overridden, and there is nothing left to stop your inner caveman.

For a pilot, this is known as an amygdala hijack, and it comes with some insidious and dangerous physiological effects. Your vision begins to narrow, and your peripheral vision is all but gone. You’re looking through a tunnel. Your amygdalae don’t care for loud sounds, either. They begin to tone down and filter out the warnings and radio. Accident reports reveal that pilots were not even aware that the “gear not down warning” was even going off. When pilots become startled, sounds are often the first things that get dropped out of the bucket of situational awareness. So now what?

Don’t Get Hijacked

Emergencies, unusual attitudes, upsets and system failures are part of aviation. Every upset or emergency comes with some level of “startle.” 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.

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 modern brain activity and triggers the action of startle recovery. It is a powerful key in shutting down the amygdalae and getting your modern brain involved.


Verbalizing out loud the self-command to fly 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. The immediate threat to life and survival is keeping the aluminum tube in the air. Fly the plane—do that pilot crap, Mav! That means fly it, no autopilot, get it off. It might be the problem.

Second, it fights the amygdalae for control of the frontal cortex. In almost all cases, your flying skills are instinctual and reside in the modern brain, 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. 

Our hand-flying skills make us resistant to the emotion of fear coming from the caveman. Being proficient was the first step in a successful recovery, but you had to break the effects of the startle by saying something. Now what?

2. Silence the Warning!

You know something is wrong. So, get rid of the noise. If you let the warning continue to echo in your ears, your caveman brain will completely tune it out in an effort to direct full attention to other threats. Now, with the cockpit quieter, you can calm down your caveman brain and free up the modern brain’s powerful logic and begin to assess the situation.


3. Confirm the Emergency.

As pilots, we hate not being able to control things, especially our emotions. 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, you’ve prevented yourself from “freezing” up.

However, your body is amped by the overflow of superhuman cocktail of hormones. You could lift a bus, you could outrun a wooly rhinoceros, but not from that seat. The process of “fly the plane,” “silence the warning” only took seconds, but it’s far from over.

The next steps are carried out in your modern brain: calmly confirming the state of the systems, what immediate actions to take, and what checklist to run. Using memory triggers and your available resources now (checklists and POH) will help you calmly proceed. Many poor decisions have been made during this phase of the emergency. Take some deep breaths. Confirm that the problem is the real problem!


Here is where I can no longer help you. 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 are where you are, nothing more, nothing less. Being aware of the effects of startle is critical. Then, always tenaciously pursue knowledge, continually practice emergencies and upsets. Chair fly and use visualization. If you do, you will be prepared at this level. If you aren’t prepared, the question is, how far will you fall before you hit your base level of training? And will that be enough?


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