Auditory Exclusion: Will It Happen Every Time?

ear protection equipment

Howard Leight Impact® Sport electronic hearing protectors are available at most outdoor stores. More info is available at the company’s website.

How important is your hearing? It’s something I value highly. The ability to hear a bad guy sneaking up on me in a parking lot is high on my list of reasons why, but so are the rustle of the wind through the trees, the sound of donkeys braying in the pasture, the call of my loved ones across the yard.

As a U.S. Army pilot for 20 years, I was told repeatedly that I should always wear hearing protection when in or around the aircraft. In fact, I should double up and wear not only my helmet, but earplugs as well. And it was emphasized that the Army would not pay a disability claim for hearing loss because we were told how to protect our hearing and provided the means to do so.

As a firearms instructor, I have studied the physiological and psychological effects that occur during and after a defensive shooting situation. One of the fascinating phenomena that occurs is auditory exclusion.

This occurs when the body starts to shut down various senses that it deems unimportant at that particular time in that defensive scenario (e.g., peripheral vision, certain memory functions and, of course, hearing).

However, can we rely on this to occur during all defensive shooting scenarios? I teach my students that during some defensive shooting scenarios, your hearing may actually become more sensitive and, while you may survive the encounter, you may end up with irreversible hearing loss.

image of a burglar

Homeowner’s worst nightmare.

Bump in the Night

Imagine you’re at home asleep and are awakened by a bump in the night. You grab your trusty handgun that you keep secured in the quick-opening gunsafe next to your bed and silently walk to the bedroom door. No one is expected to be coming home that late at night, and the other family members are all out of town for an extended period of time. Therefore, safe in that knowledge, you know that absolutely no one should be in your home.

You move to the bedroom door, take a quick peek down the hall and see two men dressed in black clothes and with ski masks over their faces. One is holding what appears to be a long gun.

You quickly close and lock the bedroom door and wake your wife. “Get into the bathroom!” you whisper. The urgency in your voice conveys the danger you’re both in. She quickly grabs her cell phone and moves into the bathroom, your predetermined “safe area,” as you slide a chair in front of the bedroom door and manipulate the keypad to open your large gunsafe and withdraw the AR-15 you keep there in case you ever have to fend off multiple intruders.

As you wait quietly, concealed in the bedroom, your wife calls 911 and gets the police on their way. The dispatcher informs her that it will take some time because there are only a few deputies on shift that night. You now know that it’s you, and only you, who can fend off these men, if it becomes necessary.

image of man holding gun

Homeowner’s best defense may be a personal defense weapon that has good penetration through walls.

The thieves, or are they murderers, move slowly through the home. You can hear them going room to room, gathering your valuables as they go. As they move closer to your room, the place where you and your loved one are hiding, your senses become more acute. You can hear the creak in the floorboard at the end of the hall that you’ve been meaning to fix. You hear the rustle of clothing as they brush past the table your wife decorated the hallway with last month. You hear the whispers as they see your closed bedroom door. You hear the racking of a shotgun!

Your breathing deepens. Your palms are sweating. Where are the sirens? Where are the police? You can’t believe this is happening! Should you yell out, “The police are on their way”? A yell now would give you away, and what if they just start shooting through the door or the walls? Will the walls stop a shotgun at this range? What if they have slugs in the shotgun? These thoughts run through your mind in a flash.

You steel yourself as you strain to hear the men who are outside your door. The doorknob turns slowly. You click the safety from “Safe” to “Fire” and hope they’ll go away, hope the sirens will come wailing down the street. But they don’t! The door begins to move, the men begin to kick, and then kick harder. You raise your rifle and fire! The man returns your “announcement” and the shotgun blasts through the door, so you fire again, and again, and one more time. You hear the hallway table crash as someone stumbles down the hall toward the front door. Now you hear the sirens. You go to your wife and both wait for the cavalry.

this is an image showing how a gun shot impacts a person

According to government statistics, decibel levels above 115dB can cause permanent hearing loss. Image courtesy www.dangerousdecibels.org.

Auditory Exclusion

I say all that to say this: Do you think auditory exclusion occurred during the above scenario? The victim in the room went through the original “fight or flight” physiological reaction minutes before the actual shooting. The victim’s senses were increasingly heightened during the burglary and he focused intently on trying to hear where the bad guys were in his home.

What about the victim’s wife? Did auditory exclusion work for her? She probably didn’t know when her husband was going to fire his rifle. Both the victim and his wife experienced 150-160 decibels, several times above the threshold for normal hearing and well into the threshold where hearing damage can occur. Plus they experienced this inside an enclosed room! While lucky to be alive, they may very well experience some long-term hearing loss.

Preventing Hearing Loss

Is this a preventable tragedy? Could Mr. & Mrs. Victim’s potential hearing loss have been avoided? Yes. With proper planning, a defensive shooting scenario where auditory exclusion may not occur can be made safer for the victims.

suppressed rifle

Suppressor on AR-15 personal defense weapon.

While there are expensive methods to quiet a rifle, not everyone wants to spend $1000 on a high-tech suppressor, pay the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATFE) another $200, fill out all the necessary paperwork, go to the local sheriff’s office to get fingerprinted, etc.

I believe in simplicity! I teach my students to keep a set of $50 electronic hearing protectors next to their beds. I mentioned this to a friend the other day and she laughed and said, “So, I’m supposed to tell the bad guys to wait until I put my ear-pro on?” Absolutely not! If the bad guy is suddenly right there, this article is moot. If you’re in a sudden defensive shooting, auditory exclusion will more than likely take effect. But I asked her, “Are you going to ask the bad guy to wait while you get your phone, handgun and long gun?” No! You’ll have those in pre-prepared locations, with a thought-out plan that you will put into place if you have the time to do so. Ear-pro is, or should be, a part of that plan.

What benefits do you get from adding a set of electronic ear muffs to your “Bad Guy Is in My House” plan? First and foremost, you will protect your hearing! Something that you can’t get back once it’s lost! Secondly, you get bionic hearing. You can now hear better than normal because your hearing is electronically enhanced. Lastly, you can communicate with another person with simple whispers because he or she has bionic hearing also.

Do these benefits outweigh the cost? Well, I ask again: How important is your hearing?

Discussion
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19 Responses to “Auditory Exclusion: Will It Happen Every Time?”
  1. Theo

    Just a quick note, but auditory exclusion is the phenomenon where you stop *registering* sound. It does absolutely nothing to protect your hearing, contrary to what this article seems to be implying. Any damage done to your hearing will be done regardless of whether your brain decided the sound was worth processing.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Theo is correct; Auditory Exclusion, along with the other half dozen possible physiological reactions, are simply the mind’s way of filtering out what is absolutely necessary for survival. Auditory Exclusion does not prevent the sound waves from hitting the ear canal at full speed and causing high impulse noise damage, only a reduction in decibels or hearing protection will do that.

      Otherwise, the article’s point of having ear pro strategically placed as part of a defensive plan is spot on, in the event there is an opportunity to use it. For those on a budget or with multiple family members, foam earlugs will work just fine and typically have a better noise reduction rating (NRR) than ear muffs. (You just won’t have the amplifying effect of electronic ear pro, but even then most of what will be amplified will be your own movements/sounds within your safe room.)

      Regardless of your choice, I recommend ensuring everyone in the home is able to use the selected style of ear pro. Don’t take for granted that everyone knows how to roll foam earplugs between their fingers before inserting them, or how to turn on the electronic ear muffs. Your mind will likely be focused on other tasks at the moment.

      Reply
  2. Michael

    Your article is spot on. There are so many people talking about using AR’s, Shotguns, or handguns inside the home without hearing protection or suppressors. I’m finally glad that someone has given this subject some thought and lets others know that hearing protection is still needed when defending yourself or family indoors. I believe a training plan should be implemented with hearing in mind. After all, family members may need hearing protection as well, depending on the situation.

    Thanks for the article and graphic.

    Reply
    • Kerry B. Marino

      Wow, great timing. I was out doors today and popped off a round from my Glock G-22. I had no ear protection. 6 hours later I am still regretting that poor choice. I already have partial, diabetes related, right side hearing loss. My ears have not stopped ringing yet. It’s almost as if I was at a concert. I used to joke about concert deafness but not any more. Hearing protection is vital. I am going out to buy a set of electronic ear protectors.

      Reply
    • Steve

      Absolutely spot on. Plus the ‘bionic’ hearing gives one the ability to recognize familiar voices of a friend or loved one who may be ‘sneaking’ back into the house. If one has the time, grab the electronic muffs!

      Reply
  3. Bill

    Very often responding police do not use their sirens when they are near the call. Not hearing a siren does not necessarily mean the police are not coming. Unless you do hear a siren, I would not assume you are getting police help. This is particularly true if one lives in the “country” serviced by Sheriff’s Dept., where response time can be quite long.

    Reply
  4. David "Bo" B.

    According to the peer-reviewed Artwohl and Klinger studies, it occurs approximately 80% of the time in law enforcement officer-involved shootings, so this is a very real phenomenon. Personally, I experienced it quite severely in my first OIS encounter … I did not hear my own weapon discharge. On other occasions, it was not as noticeable. Lessons I have learned: realistic situational training exercises and being physically fit can help attenuate the effects of auditory exclusion and other negative effects of Emotional Intensity, but no one is immune. Godspeed!

    Reply
  5. Anon E Mous

    Good Article. I have been keeping my hearing protection on the refrigerator, because that is convenient for grabbing when using my lawn tractor.

    This article has convinced me to keep my hearing protection on my safe (or buy a spare to keep there)!

    Reply
  6. Robert Warner

    Agreed!
    Fear causes temporary deafness and tunnel-vision. I have seen those reactions in thousands of first-jump students. Only physical touch gets thier attention in the doorway of a jump-plane.
    OTOH I have suffered long-term hearing loss from firing too many machine guns and riding in too many loud airplanes.

    Reply
  7. J Sevey

    I wouldn’t worry (for me) to have hearing protection near me at home. I already have a handgun, flashlight, cell phone, and car keys ( to honk the horn on my p/u to alert neighbors). I don’t want to much clutter near me any time of the day or night. My wife can use cell phone and car keys. I want a good strobe flashlight and my handgun in my hands. I’m not saying that our hearing isn’t important, but even if we face just one deadly encounter in our lifetime, I want to have a clear mind and hear as much as possible. Great article for sure. Thanks.

    Reply
  8. Michael

    Good points made in this article. I also have a set of electronic hearing protectors in my bedside closet (along with tactical eye protection and gloves) “just in case!” I have a small ranch and know that Deputies wouldn’t be here for 30 or more minutes out here in the countryside. Fortunately we have loud dogs so early warning will hopefully be provided. In addition to the requisite handgun, I have an AR in 300 BLK with a suppressor, light and laser attachment and a Remington 870 loaded with 00 buckshot and slugs. My wife carries a Glock 43 as well. If given sufficient warning, the 300 BLK would be my “go to” self defense weapon out here. But your points about the “bionically enhanced” hearing when using the ear protection should be considered by all. I use them when I hunt and it helps!

    Reply
  9. Joseph Jones

    The electronic muff work great! You can turn them up for greater hearing, but they will shut out the great noise!

    Reply
  10. JR

    I am sensitive to noise (train whistles, road noise, neighbor’s pets, etc.) at night, so in order to sleep I wear ear plugs, which attenuates, but does not keep me from hearing these things when I am awake. It seems to me this would be something to consider. It would not take much of a change to your home to make it almost impossible for someone to break-in without significant noise. I know I am fortunate at my age to have hearing such that I have a problem with too much noise keeping me awake.

    Reply
  11. Jim in Conroe

    I’m sorry, but if I opened the bedroom door with a firearm in my hand and saw two masked intruders in the hall, my first reaction would be to put two center mass of the nearest masked intruder and engage the second intruder, if he were still standing there, then prepare for a follow-up shot, while my wife called 911. Quietly closing doors opening safes, selecting a different firearm, loading it, getting into position, and so on just doesn’t seem like a feasible scenario in which you loose the element of surprise and face a possibly prepared, armed, and more numerous opponent.

    Secondly, if you feel the need to resort to an AR15 for home defense, it should be the firearm by your bedside, not the one you get out of the safe.

    Reply
  12. firemedic2105

    Love the article… it does sound like it’s saying the exclusion will protect you, but someone beat me to that one. Lol I will however admit I laughed (out loud actually) when I read the comment about shooting through walls!!! I have read many articles that state the REASON (well a reason) the AR in 5.56/.223 is a good PDW is because it does NOT effectively shoot through walls!!! That a 9mm or OO buck will penetrate better due to the low weight and how fast the 5.56/.223 sheds it’s velocity. That doesn’t look like an AR10. Anyway, other than those two facts that caught my attention, like others, I agree staging ear pro makes sense. I have 3 suppressors and I’m praying they un-regulate them and SBR’s so I can make a PDW that isn’t so long!!! Right now it’s taking almost a year to get Class 3 stamps back, so I hate to file more!!!

    Love your articles and videos!!!

    Reply
  13. Michelle

    I have shot a shotgun & my .45. I heard ringing for about 10 min.
    I must have missed one of your videos.
    Where do you by electronic hearing protectors? This is new to me. Yes, I have a long way to go.
    They told me, if I made a suppressor, I was in “big bad trouble”.
    If I hade time to put ear plugs in, I couldn’t hear the bad guys.
    What am I missing?…

    Reply