Is Auditory Exclusion Real?

Some experts say no, but we want to hear from you

By Crawford Coates  |   Aug 16, 2017

Tulsa Police officer Betty Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Terrence Crutcher on Sept. 16, 2016. On May 17, 2017, a jury found her not guilty. Part of the defense argument was a familiar phenomenon to many in law enforcement: auditory exclusion. Problem is, some people aren’t buying it.

Auditory exclusion—the idea that under extreme stress a person will sometimes not perceive noise that would be otherwise obvious. It’s not a physiological explanation, as I understand it, but a psychological one: The brain under stress focuses what it perceives to be critical at the exclusion of other stimuli. It’s the auditory equivalent of stress-induced tunnel vision.

Then, in the course of research, I came across an article from Oct. 7, 2016, with the following headline: “The Murky Science Behind Killer Tulsa Cop’s Temporary Deafness Defense: Attorneys for Officer Betty Shelby may become the first to bring so-called ‘auditory exclusion’ into a criminal courtroom.” The article cites a bevy of experts, many of whom called into question both the admissibility of this defense and the science behind it. Quoting the article:

Those ThinkProgress reached who study the brain’s physiology said they know of no research supporting it. “Stress does all sorts of things to sensory systems,” wrote Stanford [neuroscientist] Dr. Robert Sapolsky, “but the idea of deafening is ludicrous.” Dr. Andrew Steptoe at University College London, who studies “peritraumatic dissociation” during episodes of intense fear or stress, said the idea is plausible “but I know of no solid evidence for this.”

Professor Philip Stinson (a former cop) of Bowling Green University was blunt: “From my standpoint, it’s completely nuts … I don’t see this being admissible at all.”

So is auditory exclusion not a real thing?

I know anecdotally that many police officers have experienced what they would describe as tunnel vision and auditory exclusion during extreme stress. I’ve heard it described countless times as officers recount traumatic encounters.

Here’s a particularly vivid example. Cleveland Police Officer Anthony Espada and his partner Michael Tracy discovered Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight after a decade of brutal captivity at the hands of Ariel Castro. The conditions of their captivity and their state were horrific—beyond horrific, to hear him tell it—and it was an incredibly overwhelming and surreal call for all involved. Espada moved through the house, aware of dangers lurking, attempting to process the instruments of captivity and torture that were all around him.

When another officer arrived on scene one of the first things he said to Espada was: “How can you work through this music?”

What music?” said Espada. It only then dawned on him that loud music had been blasting through the house the entire time he’d been there. (It was Castro’s way of keeping the women’s noise from being overheard by neighbors when he left the house.)

Until someone said something to me, it was like it wasn’t there,” Espada told me. “I was so focused on these little girls, who I would find out later were grown women, that I didn’t hear any music.”

I believe Espada.

But it takes more than belief to have the public and criminal justice system accept something as real and admissible in court. Lt. Col. David Grossman has written on it. Dr. Rich Gassaway and others have studied it, and there are certainly accepted corollaries in sports psychology. But apparently that’s not enough. When I Google “auditory exclusion,” few scholarly articles come up and those that do aren’t widely cited. Other experts say it doesn’t exist.

If you’re an officer who has experienced this first-hand, tell me about your thoughts. If you’re a researcher who can shine some light on this or who would like to look further into this topic, let’s talk. Email is best, which is my first name (It’s research for a book project.)

As the great writer and neuroscientist Oliver Sacks once wrote,

I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but assumed that the memories I did have—especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial—were essentially valid and reliable; and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not.

How much in the realm of criminal justice that we think we know is actually invalid and unreliable? I look forward to hearing from you.

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Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates is the author of Mindful Responder: The First Responder's Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness--On & Off the Job and the publisher at Calibre Press.
Crawford Coates

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