Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Here's a question: Can heart be trained?

Some of the answers are sure and glib, but leave me unconvinced. Heart can be faked...

What do I mean by heart?

We always watch rookies, because until the first big fight there is no way to know who will run to it, who will run away and who will freeze. Size and gender don't seem to matter. Military training and a wall full of martial arts trophies don't seem to matter. Most freeze and the good ones force themselves to engage in their first fight. A few scatter. A very, very few jump in.

It's not the same as the ability to hold the line. The military trains and we know very well that the fear of being seen as a coward, the herd instinct, the need to belong is what keeps people in the fight under fire. They will hold together... but when they break and run, they will all run together too. The real heart is shown in those very few who stood when the rest of the herd ran. The few great leaders that rallied a broken unit who had lost and were running. Whether he was a good general or not, George Washington did this when the colonial army was lost. Maybe not a good general- but a great leader.

It's also not the ability to return violence with violence. If you are raised in a dangerous environment you can be conditioned to respond hard and fast to scary things. These are the street fighters or combat vets who hear a noise and attack immediately and all-out. A handful do it with an amazing ferocity, but for most it is a fear reflex often uncontrolled or even blind. How many can face incoming fire and stand and aim, precisely, efficiently?

And this is not the same, either: spraying automatic weapons fire into the general area of a threat is a fear reaction and not at all the same as looking in the eyes as you close in, knowing only one will walk away.

Can it be trained? (Should it, for that matter?)

From the comic book ads of yesteryear to modern seminars, the promise really hasn't changed that much, "Fear No Man!"

I've seen heart grow. The rookie who freezes and forces himself to act and does it again and again, starts to act as the default, stays calm with experience and can become a hell of an operator. But I've never seen a training that can make someone brave or dedicated. I have seen training that can get them to panic in a more useful direction, running through the threat rather than away... but only the people selling it pretend it's not panic.


Anonymous said...

"Heart" is a term that privileges one type of instantaneous response over the others. That is a useful thing to do in certain fields where you want to lionize those who show this response. Cops, for example. Cops who run away from a threat of violence are not terribly useful as cops, and so it may be appropriate to distinguish one cop from another in terms of "heart."

In a broader context, however, I have severe reservations about the term. I think we are talking basically about fight versus flight here-- more specifically, which way a person naturally leans-- and I want to avoid making one sound better than the other when in fact it may be worse. In short, "run away" might be the better response for most people in most circumstancesl, and in those cases, "heart" would be an undesirable and perhaps fatal attribute.

I have plenty of "heart," but I'm not a cop or a fighter, am not big or tough, and have very little training or day to day need to handle threats of violence. When I am threatened, something happens that feels very strange to me. I don't know how to describe it or if it's what others experience as "heart." It feels utterly calm at the time and is weighted toward "fight," but it's not a "wading in" impulse. No thought is involved, and action just seems to happen.

This, to me, feels like what must be "heart." But I can tell you for sure that in my case, it is often better called "stupidity." I know for sure that my response has endangered my life at times when full-panic flight would have almost surely taken me right out of the situation. But it's not like I had time to think about it, and so there I was, and there we all are.

Like you, I'm not sure that a person's inclination to fight or flee (or perhaps freeze) is learned or inborn or both. I suspect my impulse not to run away is the result of conditioning and that I developed it in circumstances where running away was impossible. I think you're right to suspect that conventional training has very little chance of changing such a response. Maybe it's possible to rewire it via simulated stress or full contact, as in the boxing ring, where you really get hit and it really hurts. Maybe the only thing our basic, physiological survival responses understand is violence!

Anyway, I'm just saying that in the broad context of self-preservation, I hesitate to call the fight response "heart" or the flight response "cowardice." I can't see a use for such value judgements where the desired outcome is getting out alive and with as little damage to oneself as possible.

Rory said...

Don't get hung up on the labels, KT. (That was a compromise, the temptation to call you 'Tink' is great!)

I tried to get clearer about my meaning in the next post. Basically, taking fight or flight out of it, there is a right thing to do (sometimes morally, sometimes tactically, sometimes physically, sometimes all or neither).

Watching a video, people can almost always pick out when to act and what the action should be... then when it happens in real life many of them don't act. Some that do act don't do what they know to be the right thing.

This is the question: I can teach tactics. I can teach policy and even ethics. I can easily teach the right thing to do. But some will actually do it and some won't.

What is this difference (that I call heart in this instance) and can it be taught?

And standing to fight when there is nothing to gain and running is appropriate is just as much a lack of heart as running when you need to stand. In your own example (tendency towards fight but knowing it is stupid) is a reaction, not a decision.

It may be that you are thinking 'instantaneous response' and I am thinking the will to execute a decision and the ability to make a decision at all under stress.

Thanks for stuff to think about.

Anonymous said...


I'm thinking of this over many years and I have a feeling that unless we learned reaction to reflexive level it's inborn somewhere in neural system. But I'm not sure its always the same for same person.

I mostly freeze then fight or fight then run. But when running or fighting starts it never turns to freezing. Freezing reaction, though most common is most mysterious.

I admire people who can think and judge in such moments, but I'm also scared of myself when I have both rush (adrenaline?) and judgement. In those moments I can hurt people, hurt relations just because I think it's right and am very confident.


Anonymous said...

It may be that you are thinking 'instantaneous response' and I am thinking the will to execute a decision and the ability to make a decision at all under stress.

Yes, that sounds right. I am thinking of times when there's no time to go through a decision process, and things happen so fast that you may not know what's happening.

You can teach the right thing to do, but what if we need to act without knowing the relevant information? What if we misperceive? Those are highly likely circumstances, and you're right, I was thinking that at those times, it comes down to reaction.

Sometimes, however, you do have a little time to make decisions, albeit under stress, as you say. I agree that who will do what under stress and why are very interesting questions. For example, in the cool light of reason, I know to avoid a fight, but will anger or fear cloud my judgement at the wrong moment? And how can I ever know until it's too late to do anything about it?

By heart, do you mean partly the kind of courage that allows a person to deliberate while the adrenaline is flowing? And how can we know if we have it, and how can we get more of it if need be? Those are very interesting questions to me. Looking forward to reading mroe of your thoughts on it, and thanks!

Matt Withers said...

I can't help but feel you are using heart here to mean a lack of fear, or a calmness in the face of fear that logistically mirrors a lack of fear. But to me, heart is equivalent to bravery. And bravery must have a component of decision to it. There is nothing inherently brave in following the pathway of a natural instinct. Doing something that goes against the natural instinct because it is the right thing to do, though, that is brave. That is heart IMO. And I believe it is removed from considerations of skill, talent, or even effectiveness. What you seem to be talking about here is those who are calm in the center of the storm, your cool operators as it were, and I firmly believe that you can train that. Probably in a similar fashion to your ambush training. But it would be of benefit only to those who have "heart". Teach those who would do the right thing no matter the circumstance how to be better able to use their skills when that happens. Teaching the same to those without "heart" would be about as useful as teaching a fish to walk.