Since the last of the Neanderthals died out about 20,000 years ago the human brain has continued to evolve from what was primarily an animal brain governed by instinct, to a much larger and more complicated brain capable of logical thought. A very large part of our brain today deals with communication, reason, social behaviour/interaction and a whole lot of other things that other animals are not capable of. The ideas of guilt and remorse, right and wrong, good and evil, are all absent in the animal kingdom.
However, we still have the primitive parts of our brain which controls many of our more basic instincts, including amongst other things: violence.
When we find ourselves in a confrontational situation, decades of social conditioning and logic will often restrain us. Even most thugs will stop at beating somebody up rather than actually killing them, whereas most animals would not really give killing a second thought. In a confrontational situation adrenalin is released into the body and extra blood goes into the limbs to prepare for the fight or flight. A side effect of this is that blood is drained from the brain, so the higher functions of logic, social conditioning and reasoning become much less efficient. However, the more primitive part of the brain (sometimes called “the reptilian brain”) still functions normally and this is the part that deals with violence.
This is the same for both the aggressor and the victim. Although not everybody fully understands this process, it is used intuitively to gain advantage. A bully may shout, swear and threaten to intimidate his/her target; but as they do so they psyche themself up by adrenalising themselves. This reduces their own higher brain functions and taking themselves to their own lower “reptilian” brain. By doing this they can to a certain extent anesthetize themselves to their own barbaric behaviour which their higher brain functions might question and reject. It makes sense then to shut down those higher brain function which might restrict and limit their plan to harm somebody. It’s a bit like a warrior giving out a battle cry before the battle begins, it serves the same purpose.
Of course there are some exceptions to this. Sociopaths believe that the rules do not apply themselves, so violence comes easy to them without having to psyche themselves up. Most “professional” street predators (rapists, muggers, etc) are sociopaths. But I would guess (and it is a guess) that most average street thugs do have some small level of conscience which they prefer to silence, so that they do not have to face it.
So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage when confronted with a thug who is psyching themself up?
Well the first thing to do is to try to get them back to their higher brain functions if you can, where they are less likely to attack. You can do this by asking questions that make them think. In FAST (Fear Adrenalin Stress Training) Defence, they recommend asking in an assertive manner “what do you want”?
But it could really be anything. You could say something completely random like “isn’t it a shame about the polar bears at the North Pole”? The normal response will be something like, “What the f***”? Either way, it gets them thinking and going back to the higher brain function and away from the reptilian brain. At best this may be enough to avert an imminent attack. Hopefully it will make them pause as their higher brain functions (including conscience, reasoning, social conditioning, etc) kick back in, even if only for a moment. This momentary hesitation should be enough time for a trained martial artist to successfully launch a pre-emptive strike and hopefully finish the situation then and there (before they realise and start psyching themself back up again).
I’m not saying that this will work every time against every aggressor, but it could give you an edge when you need it most. This type of tactic is often practiced in reality based martial art training, but is usually absent where people don’t not look beyond the boundaries of their own traditional martial art.