Realism in combat: perceptual distortions

Writing combat sequences and traumatic events is always a challenge. There are plenty of questions and answers out there about the mechanics of sword fighting, bare-handed combat, or guns. Most of us can extrapolate our more ordinary experiences with adrenaline to that sort of situation, to get those flavorful extra details: cold sweat, pounding pulse, hands shaking. But it turns out there are even more options than those.

Perceptual distortions are common, in combat situations. The following can be used for dramatic effect or to set up conflicts because of differing accounts of what happened. According to the numbers reported, it’s not unusual to experience more than one of the following distortions — in fact, it would be more unusual to not experience any.

Listed from most common to least common, as reported by Artwohl & Christensen in 1997.

Above 50%:

  • Diminished sound: Not to be confused with being deafened by the noise of gunshots or whatever else is going on. This is sound being actively screened out by the brain. It may be a case of sounds being lowered in volume, it might be a complete blockage of all noise, or it might be selective editing of certain noises (such as gunshots.)
  • Tunnel vision: The brain can actively screen out visual information, too, so as to narrow one’s focus to the most important (threatening) thing on hand.
  • Automatic pilot: This is why soldiers and police officers drill certain sequences of actions into becoming reflexes — because when one’s conscious brain shuts down under the tidal wave of adrenaline, that’s what still works. If your character hasn’t trained his automatic pilot to fight…?
  • Heightened visual clarity: This is why some combat pilots can describe, 50 years later, the look on the face of the enemy pilot they shot down. Adrenaline can burn images onto the brain.
  • Slow motion time: In addition to being a cool movie effect, this can actually seem to happen. Some swear that they saw the bullets zipping by, and who’s to say they didn’t?
  • Memory loss: In addition to the sights and sounds that the brain might edit out, the entire memory can be simply lost. Or is it only misplaced and waiting to burble up in a nightmare…

Below 50%:

  • Dissociation: Some get the sensation of watching themselves from a distance, in these situations.
  • Intrusive, distracting thoughts: Perhaps it’s thoughts of loved ones, one’s god/goddess, or “did I leave the oven on?”
  • Memory distortions: Not lost memories, but incorrect ones. This is part of why eyewitnesses are not as reliable as we wish they were.
  • Accelerated time: Blink and you missed it. Or was your brain editing stuff out?
  • Intensified sounds: Terror can crank everything up to eleven. This can make the situation even more overwhelming, and maybe accounts for the character losing nerve and running.
  • Temporary paralysis: This was relatively rare, but terrifying. How quickly the subject can realize it isn’t real will improve his chances of survival.
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