Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

The Power of Mental Simulation

Former West Point instructor and author Lt. Dave Grossman often states that the human brain is the most powerful survival mechanism known to mankind. There is a considerable body of research to back up this assertion. In one of his excellent books, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Dr. Gary Klein outlines how the United States military invested millions of dollars to design software programs to help commanders make better decisions in combat. When the military tested the software programs during war games, the commanders who did not use the computers consistently beat their opponents. The military learned that the human brain is able to make faster and more accurate life-or-death decisions in many types of situations. While military fighter aircraft computer systems can calculate that a missile is going to hit a jet in time to automatically eject the pilot much faster than the pilot could do so him- or herself, human beings can still recognize and respond to many types of danger faster and more accurately than computer systems. As with a computer, the way we program the brain before a life-threatening incident occurs can have a great deal to do with field performance.

Visualization Techniques

Mental simulation is a relatively simple process, as long as we pay close attention to some key points from research. Mental simulation involves people visualizing various types of crisis events in their minds and picturing specific action steps they would take to resolve them. Mental simulation can be as elaborate as a flight simulator or as simple as a receptionist periodically running through a scenario of a crisis even while sitting at his or her desk. Picturing successful actions is critical. People should not perform mental simulation as a fear-based activity, however, and should be told to focus intently on successfully resolving each scenario they game out in their minds. Proper utilization of mental simulation will enhance our ability to make high-stakes decisions, while at the same time reducing fear. Mental simulation can help us regain control of our lives if we start to become overly worried that we might be killed in a tragic incident such as a tornado, plane crash or campus shooting.

Confirmed by Research

Mental simulation has been validated by research, and has been utilized by Olympic and professional athletes, military and law enforcement personnel for decades. In a nutshell, mental simulation can help anyone who must perform flawlessly under high-stakes situations like the Super Bowl or a gun battle. The good news is that we now know that anyone can use mental simulation to reduce the chances of death in a crisis event. The bad news is that many people do not realize that, as with physical forms of practice for emergencies, focusing intently on one type of event can accidentally create some extremely dangerous reactions under stress. For example, we are now starting to see instances where people who are provided with training focused on active-shooter incidents are reacting improperly to situations involving other types of weapons. Dr. Klein’s research helps us understand how this can happen. Klein emphasizes the “base of knowledge” concept, and urges us to utilize an array of scenarios when preparing people for high-stakes decision-making.

For this reason, we encourage campus officials to ensure that staff members are taught to address a wide array of situations in their emergency-preparedness training, and to train employees to practice mental simulation in the same way. The research — and my personal experience working seven active-shooter incidents in schools — indicates that focusing intently on active-shooter incidents without also providing an adequate depth of coverage for other types of weapons incidents (such as hostage situations, “one-on-one” shooting incidents, an individual brandishing a gun, etc.), can dramatically degrade human performance under field conditions.

Our nonprofit center has developed a free high-definition five-minute training video on mental simulation that can be accessed by searching for “Staying Alive – Mental Simulation” on YouTube or Vimeo. This video is a powerful, free resource that can help campus staff and students prepare to make faster and more effective life-or-death decisions, should the need arise. Mental simulation is a research-proven tool to help make people safer while also reducing fear.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at

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