Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hicks Law? Reaction Time In Combat? No!

Hicks Law?

Reaction Time In Combat? No!

By W. Hock Hochheim

Action beats reaction. If you are reacting to an attack, as the good guys generally are, you are already behind the action curve. How behind, scientists have labored intensely to discover over the last 50 years, and like splitting the atom, they have split the single second into one thousand parts to do it.

It was about 25 years ago when I attended a police defensive tactics course and was rather insulted by the attitude of the instructor. We were treated like Neanderthals. He declared, "KISS! Keep it simple, stupid. Hick's Law says that it takes your mind too long to choose between two tactics. Worse with three! Therefore, I will show you one response." I wondered then and there, "Am I to stay simple and stupid my whole life? Who is this Hick and what is his law?"

And, it takes too long? How long was long? How long is TOO long? I wondered? We learned one block versus a high punch that day. What about against a low punch, I thought? My one high block fails to cover much else but that one high attack.

Later that evening while coaching my son's little league baseball team, I saw this very instructor coaching his boy's team on another ball field. He was teaching ten year-olds to multi-task and make split-second decisions as his infielders, worked double plays with runners on base. It was clear the coach expected more from these kids than he did from we adult cops that morning. Hick's Law was not to be found on that kid's diamond.

Next, I slid both feet into this thing called Hick's Law, to discover it was a growing favorite among law enforcement trainers. Other famous police trainers kept mentioning Hick's Law :

" - lag time increases significantly with the greater number of techniques."

" - it takes 58% more time to pick between two choices."

" - it takes 'about a second' to pick a tactic."

"Selection time gets compounded exponentially when a person has to select from several choices- "

What is the definition of "significant time?" 58% of what? What exactly is "about a second?" Exponentially? Compounded? I had to delve even deeper into these cavalier statements. They seemed to have an agenda. The agenda was to sell training courses and dumb-down people and training? If I was going to become this pessimistic, I needed more proof. I hit the textbooks and contacted the experts.

The actual Hick's idea was based on a computer study, a paper written in 1952 and simply set up an equation that states it takes time to decide between options. Just for the record, the equation is TR+a+b{Log2 (N)}. A computer performance study? Do you think that 1950 computers ran a bit slow? The 1950 idea was then extrapolated into human performance, based on very primitive, 1950 push-button tests. The lab method had the testee selecting from several buttons on sudden command. From this, the mythology of the slow decision making brain developed.

Exponentially decision making? Any exponential function is a constant multiple of its own derivative. Many modern tactical instructors still just blindly associate a never-ending doubling ratio to Hick - that is, for every two choices, selection time doubles per added choice. Yet, despite all these quotes on times, Hick made no official proclamation on the milliseconds it takes to decide between options.

There is a general, consensus in the modern Kinesiology community that Simple Reaction Time, called SRT, takes an average of 150 milliseconds to decide to take an action. That's considerably less than a quarter of a second-or 250 milliseconds, or half-a-second, or "about a second." Lets re-establish that there are 1,000 milliseconds in one second-a fact that makes all these time studies fall to include into a proper perspective. 1,000 of them! More than 1,000 milliseconds passed before you can read the number aloud.

Based on the doubling/exponentially rule with the commonly discussed SRT average, then choosing between two choices must take 300 milliseconds. Run out that time-table. Three choices? 600 milliseconds. Four choices? 1 second and 200 milliseconds. A mere five choices? 2 seconds and 400 milliseconds! Six? 4 full seconds and 800 milliseconds. Should a boxer learn 5 tactics? That would mean 9 seconds and 600 milliseconds to choose one tactic from another? You would really see people physically shut down while trying to select options at this point and beyond. Has this been your viewing experience of a football game? Basketball? Tennis? Has this been your experience as a witness to life? Under this casual, exponential increase rule, it would seem athletes would stand dumbfounded, as index cards rolled through their heads in an attempt to pick a choice of action. Every eye jab could not be blocked if the blocker was taught even just two blocks. The eye attack would hit the eyes as the defender sluggishly selects between the two blocks.

One then begins to wonder how a football game can be played, how a jazz pianist functions, or how a bicyclist can pedal himself in a New York City rush hour. How does a boxer, who sees a spilt-second opening, select a jab, cross, hook, uppercut, overhand, or to step back straight, right or left? If he dares to throw combination punches how can he select them so quickly?

Simple, modern athletic performance studies attack the doubling rule, but we need not only look to athletes. How can a typist type so quickly? Look at all the selections on a computer? 26 letters-plus options! How can you read this typed essay? How can your mind select and process from 26 different letters in the alphabet? It is obvious that the exponential rule of "doubling" with each option, has serious scientific problems when you run a simple math table out, or just look about you at everyday life.

New tests upon new tests on skills like driving vehicles, flying, sports and psychology, have created so many layers of fresh information. Larish and Stelmach in 1982 established that one could select from 20 complex options in 340 milliseconds, providing the complex choices have been previously trained. One other study even had a reaction time of .03 milliseconds between two trained choices! .03! Merkel's Law, for example, says that trouble begins when a person has to select between 8 choices, but can still select a choice from the eight well under 500 milliseconds. Brace yourself! Mowbray and Rhoades Law of 1959, or the Welford Law of 1986, found no difference in reaction time at all, when selecting from numerous, well-trained choices.

Why all these time differences? In 2003, I conducted an email survey of 50 college university professors of Psychology and Kinesiology. It is crystal clear that training makes a considerable difference. Plus-people, tests and testing equipment are different. Respondents state that every person and the skills they perform in tests vary, so reaction times vary. One universal difficulty mentioned by researchers is the mechanical task of splitting the second in their testing - that is identifying the exact millisecond that the tested reaction took place. Many recorded tests are performed by under-grads in less than favorable conditions.

The test-givers themselves have reaction time issues that effect time recording! Milliseconds are wasted as the tester sees the testee react, then reacts with a stopwatch device, either estimating or losing milliseconds in their own reaction process. Common test machinery takes milliseconds to register a choice. Results can get vague and slippery within the tiny world of a single second. Documenting milliseconds in the 1950s was almost impossible even in the most sophisticated labs, yet modern instructors ignore modern research and use the 1950s numbers to base their training methodologies. But test-gathering technology is rapidly changing.

The KISS Method- not well thought out as a doctrine.

Many unintended messagesand consequences are involved.

Discoveries made in 1990s, decades after the 1950s Hicks law began, blowing the original, antiquated "mental rolodex/task selection" concept out of the water. The brain has a fast track! Below, researchers Martin D. Topper, Ph.D., and Jack M. Feldman, Ph.D. write about them:

"Currently, the best explanation is provided by psychologist Gary Klein in Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. He's proposed that the human brain is capable of multi-tasking. Gary's theory works like this: A visual image is picked up by the retina and is transmitted to the visual center of the brain in the occipital lobe. From there the image is sent to two locations in the brain. On the one hand, it goes to the higher levels of the cerebral cortex which is the seat of full conscious awareness. There, in the frontal lobes, the image is available to be recognized, analyzed, input into a decision process and acted upon as the person considers appropriate. Let's call this "the slow track," because full recognition of the meaning of a visual image, analyzing what it represents, deciding what to do and then doing it takes time. Some psychologists also refer to this mental process as System II cognition. If you used System II cognition in critical situations like a skid, you wouldn't have enough time to finish processing the OODA Loop before your car went over the cliff.

Fortunately, there's a second track, which we'll call "the fast track," or System I Cognition. In this system, the image is also sent to a lower, pre-conscious region of the brain, which is the amygdala. This area of the brain stores visual memory and performs other mental operations as well. The visual image is compared here on a pre-conscious level at incredible speed with many thousands of images that are stored in memory. Let's call each image a "frame" which is a term that Dr. Erving Goffman used in his book Frame Analysis to describe specific, cognitively-bounded sets of environmental conditions. I like to use the word "frame" here because the memory probably contains more than just visual information. There may be sound, kinesthetic, tactile, olfactory or other sensory information that also helps complement the visual image contained within the frame - fortunately, the fast and slow tracks are usually complimentary, one focusing on insight, the other on action. Together they produce a synergistic effect that enhances the actor's chances of survival.

But even though these two tracks are complimentary, we know that some people seem to be much more skilled than others at integrating System 1 and System 2. These especially competent individuals seem to resolve critical situations and also adapt to rapid changes in those situations. They invent routines they have never before performed and act in a fluid, seamless manner without employing full focal awareness."

So at this point in our understanding, we have newer models discovered and developing that tell us something about how the brain can operate on two tracks at the same time, but we don't really have a good idea of how the two levels interact, except to say that the interaction is very fast and complex, and some people do it better than others. We really don't know everything we'd like to know. But we do know that specific types of training can help a person develop unconscious competence, and this is enough to make some suggestions about the kind of training that will help make relatively unskilled people more competent in finding solutions to potentially violent encounters.

And then this news on BDNF: Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor :

"If I had to make a signal that could write messages on the brain from the environment, that would be BDNF."

Scientists at Johns Hopkins and the National Cancer Institute have found a "missing link" brain chemical that rises and falls quickly in response to stress, fear or an upbeat mood, and then sculpts nerve circuits in the brain accordingly. Their report, on work done appears in the Dec. 21, 1999 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Further, because research at Hopkins and elsewhere shows that BDNF levels vary with subject's experience as it goes down in stressful situations..."BDNF has all the right features to be the critical signal by which environmental and psychosocial interactions impact on the brain," says neuropathologist Dr. Vassilis E. Koliatsos. "It's very rapid, it's sensitive, and it affects a system critical for emotional life and behavior. "What we believe we've found is a link between what happens to a person on a daily basis and the way the brain responds, from an emotional standpoint, over the long term."

Dr Susan Greenfield has written The Quest For Identity In The 21st Century, in which she discusses the natural ways the human brain grows and adapts. " I'm a neuroscientist and my day-to-day research at Oxford University strives for an ever greater understanding - and therefore maybe, one day, a cure - for Alzheimer's disease. But one vital fact I have learnt is that the brain is not the unchanging organ that we once imagined. It not only goes on developing, changing and, in some tragic cases, eventually deteriorating with age, it is also substantially shaped by what we do to it and by the experience of daily life. When I say "shaped," I'm not talking figuratively or metaphorically; I'm talking literally. At a microcellular level, the infinitely complex network of nerve cells that make up the constituent parts of the brain actually change in response to certain experiences and stimuli. The brain, in other words, is malleable. The surrounding environment has a huge impact both on the way our brains develop and how that brain is transformed into a unique human mind.

Doctors Richard A. Schmidt (a decades long expert) and Timothy Donald Lee, in the , ground breaking, 1980s book and subsequent new editions since, Motor Control and Learning reported that task selection is made up of two parts, RT (reaction time) - seeing the problem, and MT (movement time) - physically moving to respond, and thus may be a "few milliseconds " for fast, simple chores, not this compounding, exponential, doubling, half-second format.

Eight decades of performance testing and technology have passed since Hicks simple, little "Computer Choice Law", with new technology and testing on athletes as well as regular, everyday people. Not only are the testing methods better, and the understanding superior, so are the new methodologies created to increase SRT and selection times. Perhaps no better better statement damning the Hicks law model can be found than from neuroplastician Dr. Michael Merzenich, regarded among experts as a leading source on the human brain when reporting in the book, The Brain that Changes Itself, "we can change the very structure of the brain and increase its capacity...unlike a computer, the brain is constantly adapting itself." You will recall that Hicks Law concept first originated from a computer.

How can we change and improve? With training like:

* Sequential Learning - the stringing of tasks working together like connected notes in music, really reduces reaction and selection time.

* Conceptual Learning - is another speed track. In relation to survival training, this means a person first makes an either/or conceptual decision, like "Shoot/Don't shoot," or, "Move-In/Move Back." Rather than selecting from a series of hand strikes, in Conceptual Learning, the boxer does not waste milliseconds selecting specific punches, but rather makes one overall decision, "punch many times!" The trained body then takes over, following paths learned from prior repetition training.

Sure, sure, sure - simple is good. I am all for simple. Absolutely. And reaction time is an important concern when you are dodging a knife, pulling a gun, etc. And there may actually come a point in a learning progression when there are way too many reactions/techniques to counter an attack, and If these moves are a bit unnatural, and not guided somewhat by natural reflex, and taught poorly and out of context, a long list of movements may cause performance problems. Poor systems and poor training may lead to untimely confusion. But we are surely not as simple as Hick's Law misleaders have warned us.

It seems like the last 8 decades, Hick's Law has become a legacy of evolving research. But, Hick's Legacy is really telling us to train more and smarter, not necessarily to be stupid and learn less. Remember one of Einstein's Laws apply also - "Keep it simple…but not too simple." I like the sound of that much better than stupid instructors KISSING me to keep things stupid. And still we learn more.

Dr. M. Blackspear of the Brain Dynamics Center at the University of Sydney Australia reports that the: "...study of functional inter-dependences between brain regions is a rapidly growing focus of neuroscience research. This endeavor has been greatly facilitated by the appearance of a number of innovative methodologies for the examination of neurophysiological and neuroimaging data." This Blackspear statement was made about the amazing new discoveries in 2005 and of how fast, repeat HOW FAST the healthy, human brain changes and adapts "on the fly" (which is the medical, catch phrase for such studies on this now). People select and change options "mid-flight" in milliseconds split into milliseconds.

6 Choices? 400 milliseconds to choose or a full 3 or 4 seconds to rolodex through all of them? Let's go back to the ol' ball game - and back to the baseball analogy that started this article. We expect a common shortstop in baseball to perform a select list of actions instantly. The baseball shortstop is expected to:

- catch a ground ball to his left
- catch a ground ball to his center
- catch a ground ball straight at him
- catch a line drive
- catch a pop-up

Moves all to be executed in the sheer "splitest" of split seconds? Then, our ape man ball player has even more split-second, follow-up decisions to make with runner's on different bases. Even a child playing shortstop has a lot to decide and fast, AND can do it faster than 4 seconds! I hope that the police trainer I mentioned in the beginning of this essay is reading this this and not just when he teaches his kids in little league, but when he teaches his adults in law enforcement tactics. In fact I hope all martial instructors are listening?

Probably the single reason Hicks Law has been spread in the last few decades is as a sales pitch to sell training programs. If you still insist on dumbing things down? Then don't use Hicks Law in your argument. It makes you sound dumber. The more the truth is learned? the dumber you will sound.

ANYONE quoting Hick's Law today as a main basis for training, needs to open up an elementary school science book written since the year 2000, to see it is a decrepit, misleading and unraveled concept. They need to know the rest of the science since the 1950s. Hick's Law has become barely a casual nickname, a sketch or an outline for the thousands of performance experiments in laboratories since 1952. The ironic thing is? The center piece and point of all this reaction research? Even since the 1950s it is really about milliseconds. Milliseconds! Remember, there are 1,000 milliseconds in a second! Just how fast can we get? Start by asking a properly trained person with a healthy mind and body, in a proper system abreast of cutting edge science, medicine and psychology. Don't ask Mr. Hick from the 1950s. If I am not mistaken? Mr. Hick is dead, and his 1950's computer belongs in the stone age.

Much more workable!


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