"Hock's article (on startle) is like an amazing discovery!" -Ralph Mroz
The Landis-Hunt Crouch
A Startling Study in the Startle Reflex
By W. Hock Hochheim
A fly dashes at your eye and your hand zips up to swat it. Or, your head dodges sideways. Your hand vertically flees the hot stove. You raise your leg against the sight of a close snake...
The late author Kurt Vonnegut called the surprise of “Boo!” as, "the ancient game," one we played on each other since antiquity. How we react to this sudden “Boo,” has been called by experts, startling. If truly startled, the body will thoughtlessly react in some manner.
Aristotle said the body has five senses, touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. Yet new research discloses we have 9 and possibly more (see study below) and whether 5, 9 or more, each sense has "startles." Everyone startles and flinches, and since childbirth, unless they have maladies in their nervous system or are under the influence of fatigue, drugs or alcohol.
In 1939, two researchers C. Landis and W. Hunt embarked on a study to record some startle responses in humans. Of particular interest were facial expressions. In their primitive 1930s lab, under what some modern scientists call problematic methodologies, they created a test to surprise unsuspecting, seated people with loud and sudden gunshots. The results they garnered from these seated, test-takers have somehow today turned into the infamous, stand-up “Landis-Hunt Crouch” and have, decades later, been used, abused, misread and misinterpreted in such a widespread manner as to mislead and confuse martial, police and military defensive trainers worldwide.
What is the Landis-Hunt Crouch as described today?
“…blinking of the eyes, head movement forward, change in facial expression,
raising and drawing forward of the shoulders, abduction of the upper arms,
bending of the elbows, pronation of the lower arms, flexion of the fingers, forward
movement of the trunk, contraction of the abdomen, and bending of the knees.”
Landis and Hunt theorized that even though their subjects were seated in chairs, that this “crouch,” was a natural reflexive, startle-flinch to sudden audible stimuli. In short, a general hunching over. And further, they clearly stated in their results that the reaction was from loud and surprise sound only and that the sound originated close and directly behind their subjects' chairs. The seated hunching was so extremely brief, they needed to utilize the high speed photography of their day to even note and record the jump.
Hunt and Landis looked at the elbows and knees of the seated test-takers, saw “jolts” and extrapolated/assumed/guessed what a standing response would be as a result of a blast. In their test, a revolver was placed right behind the subjects and fired. Would a gunshot behind your head cause your head and shoulders to move forward? Probably. Positioning of the explosion is an important clinical factor. If the explosion came from the front, one could easily assume a backward motion from the head and shoulders, rather than a frontal one. This is seen in hundreds of filmed examples today. An explosion at the side? A side wards motion. In the 1980s, researchers complained about their study, saying, “…they did not mention and omitted data for the basis of their key findings.”
Yet, lets fast forward to the early 1990s and we see this 1939 extrapolation/assumption/guess has somehow hyper-jumped into a mandatory fighting stance in some training circles? The brief Landis-Hunt roll call of physical responses has been co-opted in some quarters of martial arts and police defensive tactics as the core, universal, mandatory reflex startle to any and all attacks.
But much study was done before 1939 and much more after. Flinching, startle-reflexes have interested medical sciences for centuries, and experts like to study all facets, from facial expressions to the various contortions that people jump into when someone says “Boo!” And the complete, shocking “Boo instant,” from “zero to sixty” is the only true startle, flinch reflex, medical definition. The “hot stove touch.” The “sneeze.”
Through time, these scientists have recorded over 30 different startle reactions in what they call the “Startle Museum,” which include clutching the face, the throat, dropping items, throwing items at visual stimuli, and a whole host of other responses. There are even groups of medical and psychological experts since the 20th Century that believe startles are more emotional-based than nervous-system based. Researchers have also discovered since the 1930s what they call “cultural startles” and that is – people of a certain island or isolated location have their own unique startles. It is now accepted science that startles can be learned behavior or are somehow genetically different between groups. Their cultural responses violate the Landis-Hunt Crouch mandate.
The Startle Museum
In the last two decades we have been observing startle/flinch responses like no other lab studies can produce. We have been watching "America"s Funniest Videos" on television and we have seen the whole spectrum of startles and flinches, from fainting to striking out. It is no surprise the medical research “museum” also includes these TV funnies: (and these ar in no specific order).
1) One arm up and one arm down
2) Two arms up in some manner, at times close to the chest, head or neck
3) One arm up and one arm down including a knee raise
4) Knee raise alone (from low visual stimuli)
5) Arm or arms may bend. They may not bend. May be shaking.
6) Dropping items as arms may drop down (not upward as many think always happens
7) Untargeted throwing as hand-held objects randomly leave the opening hand
8) Targeted throwing at the subject that first caused the initial startle (at source of stimuli).
9) Striking out intentionally at source of audible or physical stimuli.
10) Flailing the arms wildly (usually from audible or visual stimuli).
11) The wave - where the body and arms rock up and down as if a vertical wave passed through them
12) Jumping away from stimuli (from both audible and physical stimuli) The arms in various positions
13) Knee bends and knee buckling to loss of balance (from both audible and physical stimuli).
14) Falling down.
15) Ducking and/or cowering, with or without arms (from audible and physical stimuli).
17) A kind of sudden, temporary heart attack.
18) Clutching of one's own throat (explained as a highly instinctive protective reflex).
19) Clutching of one's own face, palms on the sides of head (like the painting above)
20) Clutching of one's own chest about the heart.
21) Freezing into the pre-startle position (usually from audible stimuli.
22) Blurting out and talking nonsense, or cursing.
23) Matching or mirroring – the startled person instantly matches the arm pose and body position of the person startling them.
24) Over 40 different, recorded facial expressions
25) If physical attacked, the subject may forego a stance and instantly respond/block the physical stimuli).
26) Obedience – in some cases, people are subject to instantly following the orders of the ambusher.
27) Cultural – experts have recorded responses that are uniquely cultural and local
28) Idiosyncratic, individual specific responses, a lengthy list and sometimes unexplainable
29) Customized and situational responses. Clutching a rail or furniture when falling. Puling away from a hot stove
30) Some combinations of the above.
I think we can safely deduce at this point there is quite a variety of recorded startle/flinch responses and not just the so-called Landis and Hunt crouch. Even Dr. Landis reported as early as 1937 that
“...the pattern varies in degree of manifestation among
individuals and in any one individual from time to time.”
Experts have proven the shocked and surprised often jump back and step away from the surprise. One of the most common responses from frontal startles is back-peddling, jumping back and getting away from the visual stimulus in front of them. If there were one thread throughout the responses, it would be that test-takers and victims of the frontal “boo” often, instantly moved, fell or ran backward from the frontal stimulus. This creates space and time between them and the "Boo!" allowing time to assess the situation. This fact also violates the Hunt-Landis startle. Some rare respondents have even instantaneously pushed or punched at the frightening shape of a visual threat before them. No matter what they did, subjects did not all drop first into a mandatory, arms-up, Landis-Hunt Crouch and then punch, push, clutch, scream, faint, fall, dive backward, etc. (see films below).
Additional tests have been done by many others. For example, booming sounds were shot into people's ears through headphones, as they walked on treadmills. The simple act of walking actually tempered their startles and produced different results than the seated Landis/Hunt participants.
The Landis/Hunt experiments on responses to sounds were co-opted by martial artists in 1990s as a sales pitch to some advanced and theretofore secret training method. To justify the importance of the Landis-Hunt Crouch, exponents often use a single photograph of a baseball bat flying into a crowd at a professional, baseball game. The spectators are in a variety of positions (coincidentally, all seated) and are one arm up, one down (already a violation of their double-arm-up tenant, by the way) or have their arms canted to a side, or both arms up, or just dodging. The bat is spinning through the air.
Think of a pro baseball stadium. Consider where home plate is, consider the batting cage surrounding all home plates. Think about the safety nets that extend past the batting cage. Then consider how far away these spectators are from home plate to be clear of the long, side safety nets running down the sides. The bat comes from afar. Well over 90 feet away. This is not a startle-flinch by true definition. Not a “sneeze.” The man with a glove to the left is "so startled" he is smiling and trying to catch the bat with his glove!
Many of these "bat into crowd" reactions are something else, something visual and more in a post-startle, physical reaction continuum, a whole other subject and study. No real "boo!" here. The people in the photos are reacting in the exact direction of visual stimulation, and have time to see and watch it come in. And more importantly, they are not all jumping up into a standing, “fighting” stance first, bending both their arms up right in front of them, and then turning to the side to dodge the incoming bat. Each one is reacting in a customized manner.
In this photo to the right, how many people are in the classic Landis-Hunt Crouch? Partially two people. Then there are examples of other movements from the museum. One woman has her hands by her ears. One person is just dodging, another ducking away. One has his arms crossed in an "X," attached at his wrists. Remember that when you are seated, more times than not your arms are already "half-up," as opposed to standing and your arms hanging straight down.
In this one photo, we see several, natural responses but they might not fit the time requirement to be a startle. Given the distance that bat had to travel from home plate to past the batting cage and side safety screens, are these even startle-flinches, as officially defined?
Some startle reactions and post-startle reactions are often customized to the situation. Not all stimuli are the same. If a fly flies at your eye, do you drop into a Landis-Hunt Crouch first and then swat at the fly? No, you just swat at the fly? Or, maybe duck your head as the man in the blue hat and blue shirt, in the photo to the right. So how could the Landis-Hunt Crouch be the end-all, initial, universal startle flinch, a “fixed action” from which all fights must begin and therefore all fighting systems must originate? The startle-fllnch accolades use photos which contain reactions like these that actually contradict their own cause when properly dissected.
There are hundreds of photos of baseball bats flying into crowds. The range of responses run from a) no response to b) maximum response. People are in individual degrees of attention while looking over the batter, the field, the stands and the sky, plus daydreaming. The clinical problem with the many "bat in the crowd" photos is that you can pick a photo to suit your argument. My point is a baseball-bat-into-crowd-photo is not a clinical demonstration for or against the startle-flinch-reflex. Too many variables.
"One of the most investigated factors affecting reaction time is 'arousal' or state of attention, including muscular tension. Reaction time is fastest with an intermediate level of arousal, and deteriorates when the subject is either too relaxed or too tense" (Welford, 1980; Broadbent, 1971; Freeman, 1933).
"If a fly flies at your eye, do you drop into a Landis-Hunt
Crouch first and then swat at the fly?
No, you just swat at the fly. Or, maybe duck?"
This photo above is not a 1939 "Landis-Hunt Crouch." Suddenly surprised or not, humans may simply throw just one or both arms up in the very direction of a visual attack. If the attack is low? They may reflexively block low. A "directional specific reaction to incoming stimuli." They do not drop into a "Landis-Hunt Crouch" fighting stance first, and then block. Look at the angle of the arm and elbow in this picture. That angle response is needed versus the common, overhead knife attack.
Surprised/startled arms may actually move in four categories. They may instinctively move away from a surprise. They may freeze. They may protect the head and/or torso. They may move at random without a mission at all. This alone eliminates them as a main source of fighting doctrine.
"Simply moving fast is NOT always a startle-Flinch"
Many defensive tactics instructors have taught this mandatory startle-flinch response for some twenty years now, yet during those same twenty years, each night on reality television programs like “America's Funniest Videos,” and MTV's Ridiculousness, the real Startle Museum is on complete and obvious display, contradicting their "Startle-Finch Reflex is mandatory to fighting" doctrines. (see these films below)
Since not all startles are the same, proper intelligence can plan on events, and create event-based training to inhibit startles if need be and then steer efficient follow-ups. Efficient follow-ups, however fast they might be, are not startle-flinches. They are trained follow-ups and exist in another category. How many law enforcement officers can attest to being startled and instantly drawing their gun? Many. I am one, yet this unnatural motion is not at all a Landis-Hunt startle-flinch.
Over-riding the Chaotic Startles
In the Landis-Hunt test, they called the study group back again and tested them. Landis and Hunt reported that the people reacted less the second day to the gun shots fired behind them. Less "startle" if you will, because they were aware of the test. They were conditioned to the test.
Many proponents of the mandatory startle crouch declare that natural startles cannot be over ridden, further emphasizing their mandate. But this is proven untrue. Responses may be steered or dulled. In the 1980s the US Army conducted some experiments in this subject and learned that people can be startled into their favored, trained fighting stances, no matter what those stances were. Almost all martial practitioners can relate to this response as they have experienced this event. In Dr. Simmon's book, he does have extensive interviews of people who have studied Judo and karate and reported these “jumps into fighting stances.” The clinicians used a term to explain this as "over-learning," to describe why this happens. The stances were deemed "over-learned" by the subjects from repetition training. This is the method of operant conditioning or conditioned response.
In a telling major university in 1990s, a psychology department took in a group of students volunteering to be tested. The group filled out a deceptive questionnaire. Inside the packet and through a wide variety of questions, they established many points and one was if the person had played basketball and for how long. Then the tests began. The testers made each person stand in a room and face a wall, expecting to view something. Then a tester sneaked up to their side and suddenly yelled "HEY" and threw a basketball at their side, about biceps high. All the non-basketball people turned and did a variety of things as they tried to duck or dodge. Or, they slapped at the ball, or block it. Or, they got hit with the ball. All the people who played basketball however, tried to catch the ball at their side. Some did catch it. Some didn't, but they all tried. Once again, this is operant conditioning or conditioned response.
These students did not drop into this classic "1939 Landis-Hunt Crouch," first, and then turn to their side to deal with the incoming ball. The ball would have hit them in their side if they did. None in fact, did this forward crouch. And, trained people responded with their experienced moves as they "over-rode" a crude startle-flinch and tried to execute what they had "over-practiced" - that is catch a basketball suddenly shoved to their side.
Even back in 1939, Landis and Hunt had the participants return to their seats a second day and re-tested them. They exhibited what was called “inhibited startle.” They were not as shocked the second day because they had experienced the first day shocks. This observation alone is hope and inspiration that proper training, such as what the U.S. Military has called “Immediate Action Drills,” and through repetition training and exposure through realistic training, programs can diminish any brief problems caused by an ambush. They also call this “experience.” Technically this is called "conditioned response." And a conditioned response is different than a startle-flinch.
A raw sneeze is still a raw sneeze. But, testing has proven that visual and auditory startles can be inhibited, somewhat molded and partially over-ridden. But I ask, have you ever suppressed a sudden sneeze or cough? Many have. Depends on the sneeze. Fortune favors the prepared.
Startles and Gun Fighting
Since close quarters gun fighting involves audible explosions, the startle reactions to intense, sudden sounds may well play a part in a gunfight reaction. Gun fighters may frequently copy the classic, Landis and Hunt crouch from loud sound responses. The same may be said for artillery, mortar fire or explosions on any battlefield. The "Landis-Hunt Crouch" reactions really apply best to firefights of all sorts. Popular firearms instructors such as Rob Pincus and others incorporate this accurate, realistic approach in parts of their training course.
The biggest problem is getting uneducated people to understand the distinct difference between the category of Starte-Flinch-Reflex and simple conditioned response. They are two different things. Trainers would be smart to drop most of the entire Landis-Hunt, startle-flinch subjects in their course outlines and use something modern and tangible. The true subject matter in a "fight" is more about customized, reaction time and training than sneeze-like startles. One such simple, example would be to explain to a class-
“...okay, our arms may go up. Or, we can train our arms to go up.
Either way, here are some things to do when our arms do go up.”
And, then move on from there. This spares the class all the misinterpretations and the smoke and mirror, junk science about startle-flinching as the ultimate platform for fighting survival. If instructors want to claim that people's arms may go up right in front of them, that is fine and sometimes true, but they should not misquote and misinterpret startle-flinch research as a sales pitch to trick and mislead students. As time goes by, you are going to sound "less hip" and uneducated the more you use these 1990's pop-terms in your presentations.
Let's clear up all the misconceptions taught under the cover of the "Startle-Flinch-Reflex." Not all fights start with startles. Not all startles are the Landis-Hunt Crouch. Startle responses are unpredictable. Even if flinched, many startles usually last but a second. You may also put your arms up in a quick, post, after-startle move to protect yourself, that is after a startle - and that is not a startle-flinch. If you put your arms up to fight while inside a confrontation, that is not a startle flinch. Your first, motivated, pre-emptive attack or counter-attack, are also not startle-flinches, nor based on startle-flinches. Simply moving fast is not a startle-flinch. Simply moving fast in a trained motion is not a startle-flinch reflex. Very little in fact, is actually a startle-flinch.
Finally, the Landis-Hunt Startle Crouch was never meant to be, is and should never be used as a core of a fighting stance or a fighting system.
1: Not all fights involve being startled.
2: If startled, the actual startle is over in a miile-seconds, then the rest of the fight in on. (see Thackery study below)
3: All blocks are not startle reflexes.
4: You cannot and should not force-feed an entire fighting system into a Landis-Hunt startle framework.
Real life is too varied. Too many circumstances and situations. The crouch was a just a test response from sudden, loud sounds by people seated in chairs.
This is a college textbook, a synopsis of the last 80 years of research, that blows all the common, outdated police and martial "startle" and "flinch" reflex training we see today, right off the charts. There are three kinds of startles, visual (sight), audible (sound) physical (touch) that originate from the 9 senses. If you teach self defense, and are interested the startle-flinch, then this book should be read and handy on your shelf.
See and read even more here. If the Landis-Hunt Crouch were thee perfectly natural startle, then every man, woman and child would always do it very time. Clearly and obviously this is not so. Take the time to watch some of these short video clips and see true startle-flinches.
- Article: What is a conditioned response? Click
- Video: See the punch startle in this video - Click
- Video: See more people startle on film and see what a real flinch looks like - Click
- Video: See even more REAL startles and the variety of responses - Click
- Video: half the pranks in this short Japanese clip have startle responses. One man is hit in the head with a "bowling bowl" with sufficient notice and still fails to put his arms up Click
- Video: New discoveries on Neuro-Plascticity and what is "hard-wired" - Click
- Study: Read the 2009 definitions of startle flinch and "fixed action patterns" - Click
- Study: In the 1980s, doctors fix some of the "methodological defects in 1939 Hunt/Landis studies..." Click
- Study: Oxford's BRAIN, Journal of Nuerology more data, but only on audible stimuli, not visual/physical ... Click
- Study: Monks defeat the startle reflex Click
- Study: Modern scientists prove we have more than 5 senses to be startled from- Click
Return to master article page. click here
W. Hock Hochheim is a military, police martial arts veteran with multiple Black Belts. He currently teaches tactical, practical hand, stick, knife and gun combatives in the United States and 11 other allied countries. For more see www.HocksCQC.com
Tony Blauer Spear