Can brain games train officers to control their minds for peak performance under stress?

In a model study, officers are hacking their brain waves to see if they can improve critical thinking during violent encounters


Stress has helped keep our species alive. When faced with a saber-toothed tiger, we went into autopilot. All brain energy went to address the threat ­– commanding flight or fight. Saber-toothed tiger times were simpler. In the complicated world of policing, stress can also lead to deadly mistakes.

With today’s neuroscience, we know which parts of our brains control different thought and activity. The prefrontal regions are responsible for analytic reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and impulse and desire inhibition. The amygdala, hypothalamus and striatum are the reactive emotional areas – hunches, biases, gut feelings and reflexes.

Brain scanning lets us see these respective areas of the brain at work. When we face a perceived life-threatening situation, scans show the brain shifts its activity from the prefrontal executive control region to the subcortical reactive emotion areas. When the reactive emotion areas are in control we respond quickly and automatically “based on beliefs, gut knowledge and not analyzing and looking for additional cues and stimuli,” explains Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale University School of Medicine’s Stress Center. Reaching for a wallet may be perceived as going for a gun.

The Phoenix PD is currently using brain scanning headsets and brain games that score officers on how well they control their minds.
The Phoenix PD is currently using brain scanning headsets and brain games that score officers on how well they control their minds. (Versus)

An elite athlete’s brain on stress  

Elite athletes aren’t just physically different from average folks. Neuroscientists have begun to uncover some interesting differences between their brains and average brains. Because athletes need to make complex decisions with competitive speed, their performance is also mental. To understand this performance, neuroscientists have run experiments with athletes and nonathletes performing the same task.

At rest with their eyes closed, karate champions emit stronger alpha waves than ordinary people, which indicates a more restful state.

In action, the brains of pistol shooters firing 120 times and fencers balancing on one foot were quieter than the nonathletes. The athletes devoted less brain activity to the motor tasks. Their brains were more efficient. As the brains of athletes become more efficient, they learn how to make sense of a new situation sooner and can make their complex decisions faster.

Can cops train their brains for peak performance under stress?

Realistic scenario-based training requiring tactical decision-making under stress is one important means for preparing officers’ brains to perform effectively in critical incidents. Because the Alaska Department of Public Safety Training Academy where I was an adjunct instructor has been doing such training for many years, I assumed all academies were doing it. Turns out, we can’t be sure without contacting each academy individually.

There are around 18,000 local, state and national law enforcement academies – each with their own training requirements and standards. According to Michael Becar, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, the only way to learn the details of those requirements and standards is to contact each training facility. Am I the only one for whom that seems problematic? But this article isn’t about whether we need nationally recognized training standards.

This article is about an exciting model study the Phoenix (Arizona) Police Department has undertaken to see if officers can “game” their brains for peak performance in high-stress incidents. Think of it as flexibility and strength training for the brain.

Officers learning to hack their brain waves

Before he began his career in law enforcement, Phoenix Officer Mike Malpass was a competitive fighter. He looks the part still – physically imposing. But he learned that to succeed in the ring, he had to figure out how to control his emotions. The answer was between his ears.

Mike has long studied brain science and its implications for law enforcement training. His book “Taming the Serpent: How Neuroscience Can Revolutionize Modern Law Enforcement Training” is one product of his passion. Another is the model study currently taking place in the Phoenix PD using brain scanning headsets and brain games that score officers on how well they control their minds.

The Phoenix City Council gave the department the okay to purchase 20 Versus brain scanning headsets. (Bet we could learn a lot from that sales pitch.) Officers in the study first used the headsets for a NeuroPerformance Assessment (NPA), which identifies the strongest and weakest areas of each user’s brain, providing a baseline of current cognitive abilities. Officer Malpass told me this beginning neuro assessment compares the individual officer to 5,000 peak performers in six constructs.

Performance protocols can be selected to determine the goals of each user’s Versus exercises. Protocols can include:

  • Enhancing resilience to changes in the environment
  • Increasing “on-demand” attention intensity
  • Learning to “quiet” overarousal
  • Increasing the ability to rule out distractions and concentrate on the most productive aspects of the moment
  • Increasing the ability to maintain focus for longer durations.

The “performance brain training” is done through different exercises on an iPad that is synced with the Versus headset so you can control the “gameplay” with your brain waves. See this explanation by a mental performance coach on how Versus purportedly gets you into the right state of mind for peak performance:

There’s also an excellent webinar describing the exercises. Tasks include keeping a balloon afloat, driving a car, flying an airplane and playing golf:

“Players” get biofeedback on their brain performance in numerous ways. There are three colored circles on the screen that represent the players’ different brain waves. When the circles overlap completely, the brain is at peak performance. Players see a graphic depiction – for example, the car they are driving staying on the road and going faster. Players also earn points. The exercises keep leveling up to the players’ improved performances.

The goal is, that with repeated exercise, users learn how the desired brain state “feels” and how they can attain it in their work and everyday life. Athletes are among those who have said this brain training helped them learn to control nerves and focus in a high-stakes competition. The company providing the Versus headsets to the Phoenix PD said, as of November 2018, it had worked with one other police department, although it declined to say which one.

Officer Malpass says the next phase of the study will involve seeing how officers who have used the Versus brain training perform in qualification tests and serious decision-making exercises.    

I’ll be paying attention. I think brain science holds some of the most exciting possibilities for improving police training to meet today’s challenges.

More resources about brain science and human performance

Fueled by positivity and passion, Officer Mike Malpass’ brain works so fast it was hard for me to keep up with him during two interviews. I kept having to ask him to slow down or wait while I took notes and asked questions. In reviewing my notes, I came across researchers, writing and videos he recommended to me.

If you’re interested in brain science and human performance and, more importantly, how you might use such information to come up with your own police training innovations, here are more resources. Please contact me with any ideas you have or come up with.

NEXT: Brain science not bias training is key to changing performance under stress

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