The Snake is a Stick

stick snakes
October 11, 2015  
Categories: Learnin'

Self evidencing training bias. Agkistrodon contrortix. Heuristics. Amodal completion. You guessed it, COWAN! is once again talking about training. Breach-Bang-Clear.

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The Snake is a Stick

Aaron Cowan.

We are diurnal predators by nature. We hunt and forage by daylight. Our eyes don’t provide us the same advantages had by hawks, nor do we have the superior hearing or smell of a wolf. Our capacity to reason, however, gives us the highest seat on the food chain. Of course, that ability to reason, to imagine and create, did not grant us mastery of the animal kingdom overnight, nor is that position 100% secure. We’ve evolved through trial and error, our mistakes along the way often leading us to be more prey than predator. The cliché survival of the fittest has borne true for millennia. When we entered the modern age we did so with tools left by all those who came before us; deep rooted evolutionary programming that even in today’s world of firearms-driven self-defense are of great value so long as they are harnessed, practiced and understood.

Before anyone assumes this is going to be an esoteric or philosophical article I will get right to what I am talking about (I realize I may have already lost a reader or two). This article is about the way we process data, the way we pick up little threads of stimulus and make quick decisions about them for the sake of safety, before we have time to gather more information. Today’s object lesson and cautionary tale will be the snake.

Kindling or Copperhead?

Since the dawn of time there have been snakes in the grass. Historically speaking, we have been defenseless against the reptile far longer than we have had ways to combat their drive to bite. A snake in the grass is so feared it’s actually a metaphor for dangerous and hidden things. It represents something of universal concern.

Our reaction to hidden dangers (such as a potentially venomous snake in the grass) transcends cultures. While moving through the grass we see a shape outside of our focused vision, the corner of our eye if you will; that shape is long and thin and somewhat straight. The assumption is that it is a snake and we react accordingly. We make a sudden stop, or change of direction, or jump… but it turns out it was just a stick.

Sticks have an annoying habit of looking like snakes, so much so that at least for me, I’ve assumed far more sticks were snakes than snakes were actual snakes. I grew up in the high desert of Northern California where spring brought all manners of snakes to the surface. Since an early age I reacted this way, though I was never taught to do so. Why is that?

Human Nature | Cowan discusses the way we process data. Cowan is a Breach-Bang-Clear contributor. | Breach Bang Clear is the online magazine of choice for warrior scholars, providing commentary and analysis of national and international events, gun news, tactical industry news, and gear reviews

I think everyone will agree that its safer to assume a stick is a snake than a snake is a stick. It is a costly mistake indeed to assume that which is dangerous is not. That initial blip on the radar, the snake-like shape seen on the edge of our vision as we hike through the woods, causes us to do a number of things.

The first is usually to immediately attempt to gather all the data we can (perhaps while moving in a protective manner) to see if it is, in fact, a snake. Your brain processes all information for threat value. Sights, sounds, smells and feelings are weighed subconsciously against what is known to be harmful. If our vision falls upon stimulus that is potentially threatening, the other senses tone down, allowing vision to be our primary focus. This may result in an unconscious startle response, or just in a quick snap of the head to focus; in any event the mind decides that as much information is needed as possible, and needed now.

This reaction is pre-cognition, meaning we don’t have to think about it to do it. It’s a programmed defense mechanism that works quite well so long as we happen to be facing the right direction to detect the possible threat (more on that shortly).

Eyesight is in general the most important sense for self defense when it comes to shooting. Our hearing and perhaps even our sense of smell can help us detect a possible threat, but these senses guide the eyes to factually recognize the threat and allow us to act accordingly. Without a visual on the threat, whether at initial presentation or during an encounter where the threat moves from field of view and must be relocated, accurate and knowledgeable actions cannot be made until a positive identification is made. One always hears talk about “PID” (Positive Identification) before a threat is engaged, sometimes to the point that we talk in circles. We make simple what isn’t, or try to make difficult something very simple.

Be it daylight or low light, vision is the most important tool we have to identifying, confronting and dominating threats. Vision, like any other sense, can be honed, trained and improved through realistic and varied training conditions that best reflect possible real-life situations. Vision is the receptor. It is the mind that is ultimately responsible for processing information. The manner in which it does so factors directly into our ability to react, act and win.

The mind processes the data. The eyes merely receive it. The better data they receive, the higher quality processing we can perform. The term OODA and OODA Loop has been thrown around the firearms community for decades, both properly and improperly. Unfortunately, what is taught often lacks context and becomes academic information just like Color Codes. The lesson is quite simple: get as much data as you can as fast as you can and act as soon as you have enough data to do so.

All manner of philosophical or anecdotal lessons can be drawn from that but the more you go down that rabbit hole, the more you complicate the lesson. Data means enough information to recognize threat or non-threat. The process by which you obtain that data is simply called looking. As simple as it sounds, it isn’t always. Your mind decides when you get the data, how it’s received and may override or preclude you from consciously acting on it. This is something I’ve addressed before[1], but this time we are going to look specifically at the limits, dangers and processes we can use to train and practice for maximizing our vision.

Gaetano Kanizsa’s Triangle.

The mind fills in blanks, even if blanks don’t actually exist. Remember the Stick that could be a Snake? Well, a much more mundane but practical example of the mind doing its thing is Kanizas Triangle. If you have been on the internet for more than ten minutes you have seen visual tricks that exploit this fact, probably shared by your aunt, grandmother or someone you didn’t even realize you were FB friends with. Simply put, Kanizas triangle makes the mind assume a triangle is present, even though it isn’t. See below:

__(kanzisa triangle)_ Cowan discusses How your mind creates things that aren't there. Aaron Cowan is a Breach-Bang-Clear contributor. | Breach Bang Clear is the online magazine of choice for warrior scholars, providing commentary and analysis of national and international events, gun news, tactical industry news, and gear reviews

__(kanzisa triangle)_ Cowan discusses How your mind creates things that aren't there. Aaron Cowan is a Breach-Bang-Clear contributor. | Breach Bang Clear is the online magazine of choice for warrior scholars, providing commentary and analysis of national and international events, gun news, tactical industry news, and gear reviews

Cool trick huh? Only it isn’t.

Your mind is literally creating something that isn’t there. Not that big of a deal with a triangle. Huge deal in a potential self-defense situation. Ever hear about a person who shot a mirror thinking is was an intruder with a gun, or a person shot because they were perceived to have a weapon that they didn’t? This is the partly due to the Law of Closure[2]. Our mind groups objects together as a whole, even if they are not, so long as they seem to complete a pattern or object.   The stick is seen as a snake because of what is called Amodal Completion or Cognitive Interpolation[3]. Informational blanks are filled in based on the rough shape of what we see and the situation in which we see it. Lighting conditions, reason for being there, previous training, lack of training, life experiences…all of the factors that make up the Orient in OODA give us the foundation for how we perceive and interpret what wee see in the “corner of our eye.” Of course the “Orient” part can occur after our body feels a threat is imminent and triggers a startle response, but that’s a different conversation altogether.

As if things weren’t already complicated, the mind processes different situations differently based on, you guessed it, context. The mind uses a Heuristic[4] process in such situations. That is a mental shortcut that allows one to reach a conclusion faster. These shortcuts are innocent and unconscious, but are prone to error. The error consequence is entirely contextual to the situation. Seeing a coatrack out of the corner of your eye, your mind fills in the data via Amodal Completion before you turn to address it with your full, focused vision. Perhaps the thought that the coat rack is a person doesn’t even consciously occur to you until you have already discovered that in fact it is not. The snake and the coat rack are simple examples we can all relate to, but ultimately they’re innocent examples that carry little weight when it comes to assuming the worst about an inanimate object.

The nature of understanding these mental occurrences is academic; it’s an educated way to say get data, and get it as fast as possible.

When it comes time to train and practice for real life, we cannot ignore the fact that real life is always going to be more complicated than training. Simple drills with an easy success are doing little to prepare the shooter for self defense. Because training isn’t real life, it’s very easy to begin viewing what occurs in training as what will likely occur in real life. This dangerous way of thinking can create self-evidencing training methods based on what doesn’t happen in training.

Recently an article was published on the RE Factor blog by Aaron Barruga titled The Confirmation Bias Of Search And Assess. In this article Aaron made some very good points on how scanning was being taught incorrectly by some and practiced incorrectly by even more. He didn’t say don’t do it he said do it correctly but because the internet takes some sort of pride in “TL:DR” comments, their conformation bias in not liking the scanning technique missed the point he was making.

Sage Dynamics half ass scan

If we engage a threat, we put that threat down, we ensure they are down, then we assess the situation for additional data. That data can be identifying additional threats, the location of cover, exits, friendlies or witnesses; in short, anything we feel we should be looking for. These mental processes exist. You can’t pretend they don’t just because you don’t want to find a realistic way to train for them. Teaching students to get a full look at their environment around them as soon as it is safe to do so makes all the sense in the world; allowing students to do a jerky, half-assed scan does not. If a second threat is present, the sooner I see them, the better. But knowns must take priority. The balance lies in how fast I process data of a possible second threat once I do begin to “scan” because if I’ve trained for there to never be a second threat (or for there always to be a second threat), the possible result of shooting someone who doesn’t deserve it can be just as high.

The lesson here is to gather data, and do it as fast as a situation allows. Your vision, your mental processes and deep structure programming will aid you, so long as you understand that in training and even more so in real life, we must work consciously after some pre-cognitive processes occur. If we are not prepared for these processes, we run the risk of not recognizing a threat, or recognizing something as a threat that in fact was not.


We want total environment awareness, but our only real-time data comes from what we are seeing, where we are looking and only as long as we are looking there. The longer it’s been since we’ve seen where we aren’t looking, the more stale any prior knowledge of that area is. Knowledgeable scanning is gathering data when prudent, when needed or when necessary. If I engage a threat and they go down, I will follow through to make sure they are down and no longer a threat for as long as it takes. However, if I engage a threat and as I am assessing follow-through I hear an approaching person, a door opening, or see a figure in my peripheral vision (or know that prior to the shoot there was an additional person near the known threat), I must quickly and effectively gather additional data.

I want to practice for real life, and in real life I want as much environmental knowledge as I can get, gathered while it was safe and prudent to do so.

Sage Dynamics Rifle Scan Drill - 01

If you are practicing scanning, great. Do so knowledgeably, with a mind towards what it is intended to do for you. Do it when you can, and as appropriate, not as part of an automatic mechanical process.

If I confront a threat in a bathroom and spatial awareness tells me there’s only the one entrance I’m facing, and me and the bad guy are the only two in the room, scanning is very low on my list of priorities. Now, put me and the bad guy in a crowded room or parking lot; context demands I gather data differently. Getting to cover may be a priority, but that cover is only useful if it covers me from threats.

At some point I will need to determine if there are other threats and move accordingly. Scanning is how I do that. Maybe if we just called it “looking around” instead it wouldn’t attract so much ire, who knows. In any case, since I cannot watch all directions at once, scanning, knowledgeable scanning, is going to be something I will continue to practice and teach; otherwise I’m assuming it’s just a stick.


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Aaron Cowan

Aaron Cowan

About the Author

Aaron Cowan is a patched Minion and an idiot savant of the tactical variety from a little place we like to call Hotlanta (though apparently no one from down there actually calls it that). COWAN! is the Lead Instructor and HMFIC of program development for Sage Dynamics who believes every article should be roughly the equivalent of a doctoral thesis, which is of course something we absolutely appreciate. To call him thorough would be to damn him with faint praise. We call him COWAN! because anything in all caps with an exclamation point after it must be awesome. A former infantryman turned PSC contractor and LEO, COWAN! has served in several SWAT and training billets. He also has an unseemly and disturbing fascination with horse head masks. Sage Dynamics is a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction for the civilian, police and military professional. An identical twin whose brother went on to become Agent 47, COWAN! is the author of the Rushing Winter novels and the designated fluffer on the set of numerous training videos here on the Sage Dynamics YouTube page. Sage Dynamics is on Facebook here; you can follow them on Instagram here and of course you can read his occasional informed and sagacious rumination here on Breach-Bang-Clear. Grunts: rumination.


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