Humans are born with a natural startle reaction that’s connected to the sympathetic nervous system. The working theory of most experts is that the startle reaction is nature’s way of making sure everything has a fighting chance of saving themselves should they find themselves caught in an unexpected attack. The startle reaction has been observed in both vertebrates and invertebrates.
Behaviorist call this instinctive reaction to being scared the startle response, most of us are more familiar with the term of fight or flight reaction. In most cases, the instinct to flee is too instinctive to ignore. The good news is that in most cases, the desire to run disappears as our conscious mind identifies whatever it is that spooked us and we’re able to logically deal with the situation.
The Science Behind the Startle Reaction
Interest in the Alexander Technique, a method used to help control a musical performer’s body tension and movement and how they impact the quality of their performance, led Frank Pierce Jones to devise a 1951 experiment that enabled him to “see” precisely how the body reacts when a person is startled.
During the course of his experiment, Jones observed that the first thing that occurred when a person gets startled is that the amygdala and hypothalamus trigger the a bodily response before the rest of the brain even fully recognizes the threat. Once the response is triggered, the spooked person’s neck muscles contract, forcing the head to move as five different muscles around the eyes tighten. The impulses telling the body to move, race downwards, flattening the chest while simultaneously contracting abominable muscles, nature’s way of preparing your body to survive a blow. While all this is happening, your arms jerk into a defensive position while your knees flex and prepare to race from the location. It takes less than a split second for this to occur.
Researchers have observed that the startle response kicks in approximately 20 milliseconds after the initial exposure to stimulus. It can end after approximately 500 milliseconds.
Researchers measure how people respond to the startle response by both attaching sensors to the muscles surrounding the test subject’s eyes, monitoring the electrical conductance of a in their skin, and videotaping the response to observe the physical reactions at a slowed down, frame-by-frame manner.
Controlling the Startle Response
Strictly speaking, it’s not possible to override the startle response. What is possible is learning how to become increasingly aware of your surroundings and adapting a semi-alert attitude at all times. These skills and life adjustments are what allow soldiers and police officers to remain cool, calm, and collected while they’re in the middle of an intense situations, though they’ll still get startled and jump when exposed to unexpected stimuli once they’re in a safe environment and are relaxed.
While it’s not possible to completely override the startle reaction, it is possible to train the body to adapt a specific stance or reaction following exposure to unexpected stimulus. Martial arts, military organizations, and law enforcement agencies use muscle memory to trigger a specific, fighting stance, that allows the person to respond in a manner that’s more fight than flight.
When the Startle Response Goes Into Overdrive
A startle response is a good thing, but in some people, it can go into overdrive, causing them to become over stimulated to a wide assortment of things, triggering extreme stress, anxiety, and tension. More importantly, the medical community believes that an overactive startle response indicates a person is struggling to cope with broader neurological conditions, which can include but aren’t limited to:
- · Huntington’s Disease
- · Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- · Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- · Hyperekplexia
- · Schizophrenia
It’s believed that by learning more about over-reactive startle responses will enable doctors to better determine how advanced a patient’s cognitive issues extend, leading to the ability to customize a treatment program that’s better adapted for each patient. Some feel that by monitoring the startle reaction, it becomes easier to determine exactly how well the patients respond to medications and psychological therapy.