The Boyd Cycle Observation: Modes of Perception and Sharpening “Orientation” by Listening | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

“In rage deaf as the sea, hasty as fire!” ~Shakespeare King Richard II

You and other members of your department are pursuing armed robbery suspects who have exchanged gun fire with you and other members of your agency. They are now on the move. The information you have gathered leads you to believe there are two men, both career criminals working together. They are armed with handguns, have fled the scene and have entered a wooded area, spotted with residential homes. Suddenly over the radio one of your fellow officers states “I have one in sight…Get the ____ on your stomach…I am at 123 Evergreen back yard…get the —- down! NOW…comes over the radio.

You are about 100 yards away from your partner and begin to move in that direction when suddenly you are engaged by the second suspect. You fire until you empty the magazine of your Glock 22 and reload your last full magazine of 15 rounds. You note the second subject you just engaged is moving in the direction your partner, who is engaged with the other suspect. You get on the radio and let him and other members of the department know what’s going on, dispatch acknowledges and advises Response Teams have been called out …ETA 45 minutes. You get no response from the fellow officer engaged with suspect number one.

You continue to focus, on your suspect who you have lost sight of and as you move in the direction of your fellow officer. You step out into an open area near the back yard and are engaged again in an exchange of gun fire with the second suspect. Finally you are out of ammunition and crawl to a cover position from which you can see your partner about 50 yards from you with the initial suspect he is handling, in the prone position.

Again you take to the radio in an effort to relay information the second subject is in the back yard wooded area of 123 Evergreen and you have exchanged gun fire and are out of ammunition. Again dispatch and other responding officers acknowledge but the officer you can see does not respond. He, you can see is focused on controlling suspect number one and does not appear to hear a word.

You then observe suspect number two is moving towards his criminal associate and your brother officer. You again use the radio to no avail, get up and shout as you see you brother officer moving in tactically and taking control of suspect number one. You observe him holster his Glock to handcuff suspect one, as you continue to shout on and off the radio for him to watch his back, The suspect rounds the corner and can see your brother officer and his criminal associate about to be handcuffed. He aims in but then comes back to the ready position and conceals himself at the corner of the house.

You keep shouting and suspect number two hears you and fires a couple of rounds in your direction to let you know he hears you. You observe the 2nd suspect is less than twenty feet away from your brother officer as he fires these rounds in your direction which again is not responded too. This you relay to responding units via the radio. Again no response from the officer engaged. 

Suspect two turns the corner and begins to shoot and move towards the officer who is struck by a bullet and then roles to a cover position. Responding back-up units arrive seconds later which causes both suspects to take a position in the house. After a few hours of negotiation and a downed officer rescue, the suspects give up and are taken into custody with no further exchange of gun fire.

Your brother officer survives his wounds and when he is in a better condition the department conducts an after action review of the incident. In this constructive review, the injured officer describes his contact with suspect number one and says he heard nothing else, no gun shots other than what exchanged initially, he heard no radio communication although he had his radio on full volume. He heard no shouting, no warning; he did not even hear the responding units pull up. It wasn’t until after he was hit and wounded by the second suspect did he realized the other threat was present. An audio tape of the incident is played and he cannot believe all the warnings he did not hear that day.

What happened here? How did this officer’s orientation become over focused and he not hear or for that matter see anything else going on around him?  How does what we hear or do not hear relate to our overall observations and our orientation to what’s going on?

Making the Best Judgment of the Situation

Orientation (perception) is a direct result of the environment we occupy, in combination with our past experiences, genetic heritage, cultural traditions and new incoming information, which is gathered through interactions, across adversarial plains. As stated in past posts our orientation is the result of our observations which in turn are based on all our senses working together. In Boyd’s words; “orientation is an interactive process of many sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections shaped by” the factors listed above. Orientation is a continuous, dynamic process!

In this post the auditory cortex (hearing) as it relates to the Boyd Cycle and getting a fuller picture of what’s going on, will be discussed.

If we are to maintain the advantage through utilizing OODA Loops (the Boyd Cycle) we must understand that our aim in utilizing the Boyd Cycle is to render the adversary powerless by denying him the “time” to mentally cope with the rapidly unfolding and naturally uncertain, circumstances of conflict, while the adversary attempts the same on us. Also that while under the stress of dynamic and dangerous encounters certain human physiological responses take place that effect our observations, orientation, decisions and actions.

This stresses the importance of developing, maintaining and reshaping one’s orientation of what jobs need to be done, what affects our view and overall assessment of the situation and methods we will utilize in completing the job at hand. The more prepared you are, the more in control of your emotions and the less fear you will experience. Learning and evolving from life experiences, which in all honesty are basically training.

Physiological responses and their effect on how and what we hear.

In their study of 141 law enforcement officers Dr. Alexis Artwohl and Loren Christenson documented perceptual distortions in conflict (high risk. little time) that take place. There were numerous results but two related to hearing were; 85% of officers involved in the study experienced auditory exclusion (diminished sound) while 16% experienced intensified sounds. The study goes much deeper into “physiological arousal and performance” and discusses in detail the effects of hormonal or fear induced heart rate increases and the bodies’ reactions to it.

Briefly stated the study says; varying hormonal induced heart rates occur when stress or fear increases. This reaction is the bodies first defense and is directly correlated to our ancient past known as survival stress or fight or flight.  We are preparing for action and the body automatically starts its internal engine by increasing the heart rate in an effort to pump blood and oxygen to the major muscles in preparation.  The study states the optimal heart rate for performance in survival situations is between 115-145 beats per minute (bpm). Here we are at our best or in the “zone” our senses, decision making and actions are sharp and fluid. However once heart rates gets over the hormonal induced level, between 146-175 bpm, things physiologically begin to deteriorate causing deteriorations in cognitive processing, loss of peripheral vision, depth perception, near vision and auditory exclusion, fine and complex motor skill depletion and more. Gross motor skills are enhanced as the body readies for conflict. In short survival stress effects the fine, complex and gross motor skills as well as decision making ability. For this post we will focus on how it affects hearing.

Auditory Exclusion

Here is a definition; “auditory exclusion involves a loss of hearing that occurs during confrontation with danger. It is a sort of filtering out unimportant external noise so that focus is maintained on the business at hand, such as survival.” This definition of auditory exclusion sounds beneficial and is so, when blocking out the sounds of gun fire or other loud noises that may be a distraction or harmful to your ears. But what about when you are in the heat of the moment and focused on an armed subject and you cannot hear your partner shouting the all important “look out behind you” as a second armed subject approaches? I do not need to elaborate on the consequences of missing this valuable information!

Auditory exclusion as just about everything else in life has its pros and cons. We must know what the pros and cons are; understand the effects learn from experiences and then channel this knowledge and the power of advantage through positioning and other factors unfolding implicitly or explicitly in front of us, to enhance our Boyd Cycle. This in turn helps reduce the effects of survival stress (fight or flight). Which helps us control emotions and hence the hormonal induced heart rates that can affect us positively or negatively. 

If a smooth running Boyd Cycle is what we are looking for, and it is, we need to understand the effects of survival stress (fight or flight) on the ability to process information via the OODA Loop. In short fear has a profound effect on our decision making process and performance as does our strategy or tactics. Repetitive realistic training is the key!

You can read more about the study in Deadly Force Encounters by Dr. Alexis Artwohl and Loren Christenson and Lt. COL Dave Grossmans two books On Killing and On Combat  as well as Bruce Siddles Sharpening the Warriors Edge all outstanding resources to help you understand these physiological effects and prepare beforehand.

Reshape your orientation with what you hear

Orientation (discovery) is a double relationship of analysis and synthesis, of what is going on. Harvesting all our senses is a critical component to giving us a better picture of what’s happening…How does the auditory cortex (hearing) affect the actions we take in a dynamic conflict and how do we channel our hearing in a balanced way (no over focus) so we visually see and hear what’s going on?

It does sound simple, “of course we need to listen and hear to what’s going on around us” but in conflict when the fight or flight response kicks in, the physiological effects clearly show based on, the above mentioned study and the countless conversations I have had with officers as well as personal experience, it’s more complex to listen intently when things are going bad and our senses are overloaded with rapidly unfolding set of circumstances. We must condition ourselves to use all our sense if we are to obtain true situational awareness.

Let’s remember the whole goal of breaking down the Boyd Cycle and the “Observation” phase in these posts. It is so we sharpen our orientation as to what’s taking place “right now” in the moment on a daily basis, hell in a moment to moment basis, in a relaxed or heightened state of awareness. Whether we are a law enforcement officer, security officer, in the military or a businessman, we all want the best picture of the situation we are assessing.

We have discussed visions role ( as the most prevalent cortex allowing us to assess what’s going on. The second most prevalent cortex is the auditory cortex or hearing. What we hear in combination with what we see can give us a powerful advantage in understanding what’s going on. It  “can” give us a powerful advantage if we actively look, listen and absorb the information and assess it.

There have been countless descriptions by law enforcement and security officers of auditory exclusion taking place in conflict. Usually more prevalent in daylight conditions or when vision dominates how we orientate to the situation. However in darkness or low light when it’s hard to discern by sight, orientation, decisions and actions must be based on sound or more correctly stated based on all our senses, with intensified listening. We must remember for a sharper orientation a balanced utilization of all senses is required. In his book The Tigers Way John Poole states; “It’s risky to enhance one sense at the expense of another. One’s whole body must act as eyes and ears.”

What is important to hear?

In the law enforcement and security realms it’s important to know the normal sounds of your environment in your sectors of patrol. Also what sounds make sense based on the climate of a particular situation? Every piece of information gathered must be matched for similar patterns from our past experiences (birth to present) and compared to the current situation for criticality. What needs to be considered as a critical factor and what is not critical. This pattern matching is how we often solve tactical problems and challenges in the operating environment.

Examples: When responding to potentially dangerous calls; listen to what you are being told by dispatch or other officers already on scene. If you are the first responding officer slow down and think about good positioning, stay alert, utilize cover or concealment and listen to what’s going on around you, before you make your final approach. You will be surprised what you can learn about a situation through positioning and listening. For example on a domestic violence call; positioning yourself down the street and walking up to the location utilizing cover or concealment gives you valuable “time that leads to vital information” using this approach you can hear subjects stating, various things; I will shoot you, I will kill you, if you call the cops you are dead, if you call the cops I will shoot them, or I am leaving, I will lie to the police and tell the cops you hit me, all valuable information to your orientation of what’s going on.

In a foot pursuit; listen for footsteps (walking or running), rustling of bouncing change or keys, dogs barking, people shouting or screaming, things being knocked over etc. When you slow down and close in on the subject, listen for sounds of heavy breathing, creaking floors, the loading or cocking of a firearm, whispered conversations on the cell phone etc.

Let’s look at a hypothetical conversation between you and either subject in the domestic violence or foot pursuit example discussed above. Once encountered and controlled, you ask the subject his name and other personal identifiers. Do you hear his responses? Do you make mental or written notes as to the information the subject is telling you in response to your questions? In a street encounter is he using the word “I” did this and that or “we” did this and that? Could this be poor grammar (I should talk) or the possibility there is another subject?

You decide you are going to take the subject into custody, tell him so and he says “I do not want to go!” or Is he telling you; “if you arrest me sir, I will not be able to take care of my kids and put food on the table for my family” Do you pick up on this subtle signal of I am not going, or are you lost (over focused) on the action phase and move in without hearing a warning?

Listen to the subject’s words and tone they are delivered in. There is meaning behind the words and how they are stated. If you listen intently and long enough a person will tell you their intentions, although there are those good at disguising their motives with words.  What about the words you are utilizing and your tone, does it have a effect on achieving desired results or are they words that may escalate the situation? Listen to what’s being said by your adversary and think about what you are going to say and how. Remember listening is taking place on both sides. Listen to the conversation it can make a profound difference in reading the situation. 

We could go on here, scenario after scenario but you can see all information gathered through what we “hear” is useful information in getting a “better picture” (sharper orientation) of what’s going on. We get better at balancing the utilization of our senses through conditioning, by practicing the technique of listening daily in all our encounters as well as training in the conditions of conflict through free play and force on force exercises so we get used to working at the arousal levels of actual conflict. This ability is also enhanced greatly by practicing good strategy and tactics.

To understand how to apply strategy effectively in conflict we must study and continually learn the physiological and cognitive responses to stress and the effects they have on the implementation of strategy. Clearly, the human senses and conditions do and we must harvest them to be successful in reading the situation.

The quote bellow I would like to end with, however do not take Lord Wavell’s words “the principles of strategy and tactics are absurdly simple literally. Strategy and tactics only become simple when you put in the time and effort, the hard work necessary to prepare, which any good strategist knows is a continuous process of education and learning through experience and application within your environment. It is an ongoing process! A process I continue to work on.

“The study of war should concentrate almost entirely on the actualities of war-the effects of tiredness, hunger, fear, lack of sleep, weather…The principles of strategy and tactics, and the logistics of war are really absurdly simple: It is the actualities that make war so complicated and so difficult.” ~Field Marshall Lord Wavell

Thus far we have discussed what we see and hear as they relate to our orientation of a situation…Next Post the Senses of Smell, Touch and Taste, as they interact and enhance our view via the Boyd Cycle. 

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