Hidden: How Life-and-Death Training Feeds Into My Writing

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime Fiction & True Crime

I began writing after having spent 8 years running my own consultancy business. I had a PhD in psychology and none of the obvious job options appealed to me. So I struck out on my own and developed training courses for specialist police units, teaching them about what the brain does when it is placed in a life or death situation.

Let me give you an example – a firearms officer is out on a call, it is dusk, cold. She leaves her Armed Response Vehicle to investigate reports of a man with a gun. Then she hears footsteps behind her. She turns to see a figure. He is holding a gun, has it aimed at her chest.

A number of things will happen to our firearms officer at this point. Her fight or flight reaction kicks in, pumping adrenaline through her body, increasing her heart rate, increasing the blood flow into the large muscles in her legs, arms (thereby making her able to move faster, better able to fight), moving that blood flow away from her outer extremities (and so decreasing her fine motor skills).

The way her brain works will also change. Blood flow is diverted away from the frontal cortex (the home of logic, reasoning, creativity) and towards the older part of the brain, that which deals with instincts and muscle memory. That means that what she does next will depend on how well she has been trained. If her training has been sufficient (if she has learned to rapidly draw her weapon, focus on a target, fire, all without pause), she will in all likelihood be able to over-ride her natural human instincts – the ones telling her to run like hell. That is why training is so important for people in this line of work. They have to perform these actions over and over again, so that when they are faced with a threat, their trained response is stronger than their instinct.

Her attention will narrow. It is entirely normal for a person, when faced with a gun, to focus on the gun and only the gun. When you think about it, this makes sense in evolutionary terms – keeping your attention on the direct threat doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. What it can mean though, is that our firearms officer may become blind to other threats or may not even realise if someone (say a member of the public) were to walk towards her. She may also have little recollection of what the assailant looked like in the aftermath, as all of her attention has been focused away from his face and onto the weapon.

Our brains are only capable of processing so much information, so in times of danger, we take mental shortcuts. So, for example, this firearms officer may rely on stereotypes more heavily than she would normally. They’re quick and easy to use, and don’t force her to think more than is absolutely necessary. Useful when her brain power is occupied with the small matter of staying alive. This may make assessing threats tough though. If the officer is primed to see someone as a threat (such as in the case of our armed assailant), even if they were to lower their weapon, a sudden hand movement, a flash of a mobile phone, all may add up in the officer’s pre-conditioned mind to indicate that this person once again represents a danger.

The effects of this do not end with the incident. Our firearms officer may well find that her recollections of events are patchy. She may remember some aspects, but not others. This is a common aftermath to a traumatic incident and is all to do with the release of hormones when the brain detects a threat. We’ve already talked about adrenaline. But when emotions are high, our levels of noradrenaline (or norepinephrine) also increase. Norepinephrine is an emotional hormone – the more emotion we feel, the higher its levels. It also helps us to lay down memories, and if an event makes us emotional (giving us a boost of norepinephrine), it tends to leave a stronger memory trace. That’s why we tend to have better memories for things like our wedding day, the birth of our children. But. You can have too much of a good thing. When an event is particularly traumatic, we sometimes get too much of this hormone and instead of helping us to lay down memories it can do the exact opposite, meaning that when we think back on the incident, our recollections are patchy at best.

There is so much here, so many ways in which the mental processes of police officers and military personnel are challenged every day. And, for years, I got to teach them about this, helping them to understand why they reacted the way they did, helping them to plan their training to best prepare their brains for the inevitable moment when the stress response kicks in.

But then, a story came knocking.

And I began to write.

I don’t do that training any more. I have been incredibly lucky to be able to make writing my full time job (alongside my other full time job of raising two little boys). And yet everything that I have learned, everything that these incredibly brave and resilient people have taught me, inevitably feeds into my writing. Hidden, more than anything else I have ever written, was born out of my time spent amongst those who run towards danger when everyone else runs away.

Emma-Kavanagh(c) Emma Kavanagh



A gunman is stalking the wards of a local hospital. He’s unidentified and dangerous, and has to be located. Urgently.

Police Firearms Officer Aden McCarthy is tasked with tracking him down. Still troubled by the shooting of a schoolboy, Aden is determined to make amends by finding the gunman – before it’s too late.


To psychologist Imogen, hospital should be a place of healing and safety – both for her, and her young niece who’s been recently admitted. She’s heard about the gunman, but he has little to do with her. Or has he?

As time ticks down, no one knows who the gunman’s next target will be. But he’s there. Hiding in plain sight. Far closer than anyone thinks…

Emma Kavanagh was born and raised in South Wales. After graduating with a PhD in Psychology from Cardiff University, she spent many years working as a police and military psychologist, training firearms officers, command staff and military personnel throughout the UK and Europe. She lives in South Wales with her husband and young sons.

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