In Part VII of my knife survival series, I discussed the flinch response and some common misconceptions about how people react when surprised.
The true flinch response. I explored this in more depth in Part VII. This is your reaction to a surprise attack. This response happens faster than your cognitive brain can process. Not to be indelicate, but it is the equivalent to a man's ability to protect his groin from an errant baseball, soccer ball or kick. It happens so fast that it seems that you covered up before your realized the danger. I'm sure there is a female equivalent, but from a guy's perspective, I speak from experience. This type of reaction also occurs for other areas of the body, and this type of rapid instinctual response is what I discussed in the last knife survival post (see link at top of post).
The level is more in line with a lot of the current flinch response training that is out there in various reality based programs. This level of recognition involves you knowing that a danger is present but you're not sure exactly where it's coming from, or from who. There is fair amount of good solid training out there on this level, but often it's mislabeled as flinch response and that's not entirely accurate. At this level, you've already sensed or are aware that there is danger, you just haven't fully processed the source of it. Often this involves certain covering up techniques that maximize your chances of avoiding injury, sort of hedging your bets, if you will.
This is the level that we typically spend most time working on in the martial arts. In layman's terms, you know you are in a fight. Sure, you may not know if it'll be a punch, kick, grab or throw, but you are aware that another person means you harm. You are also aware of who, what, and where the threat is. Prolonged study increases your chance of successfully dealing with these attacks.
It's important to understand all the levels of threat recognition and how to incorporate them into training. This is also why it's so important to always respond to what is presented to you, what is available, when you are attacked. This way, you can seamlessly shift to another technique if your original response doesn't work out the way you planned. This way, you never freeze up when something doesn't go the way you pictured it in your head. One of my training mantras is to "Do something, anything!"
It would be far easier to always know when you are in a fight. That way you could judge the most appropriate response. If every attacker let you know they were going to attack, learning self defense would be a lot easier. The reality is that most attackers will try to use some form of surprise in their attack. For this reason, it's important to learn how you will most likely react to a surprise attack, whether you are taken completely off guard or if you have some level of precognition.
Understanding the different levels of threat recognition will make you a more complete martial artist.