How to Train Reflexes, Focus, and Decision Making

By on February 15, 2021

When John Wick enters a room of enemy combatants, within seconds he must prioritize which targets present the most immediate threat and in which order to dispose of them. This is why he must train reflexes, focus, and decision making.

Boom. KaBoom. Boom. He picks off each one with precision.

Faster reactions

But then more combatants burst in through the door and let rip with a round of automatic fire.

Now he must locate cover and move to it in the fastest, most unpredictable way possible.

This relies on visual processing and working memory. He must have created and maintained a mental map of this room, based on his superior situational awareness.

John must absorb huge amounts of data; from his visual field but also from his own body. He must understand where he is in space, how his weight is distributed, and how to produce enough force to pivot and dive while taking precise aim.

Multisensory Integration

This is multisensory integration that occurs in the parietal cortex and throughout the rest of the brain (study).

John grabs a soda can and throws it into the air, drawing fire away so that he can pop out of cover and take aim. This is decision making and creative problem solving under intense pressure.

Wick must do all this before an opponent can close their OODA loop. Before they can:

Observe

Orient

Decide

Act

They literally don’t know what hit them.

This will depend partly on his ability to stay calm but highly aroused. To achieve a metronomic heart rate and state of flow.

See also: Neck Training for Balance, Speed, and Strength

Tired and injured, John turns a corner and is greeted with a bystander. He needs to immediately suppress the impulse to fire, relying on his inhibitory control.

An opponent steps out of the shadows in his peripheral vision. John must react to that input on the very edge of his visual field, turn and fire.

He must then do the same thing again. And again. Without losing focus, and without tiring. This is psychomotor vigilance.

Why YOU Should Train Reflexes Like John Wick

Back on planet Earth (where I spend little of my time), the same skills are useful for athletes, surgeons, airline pilots… even you and me every time we get in the car or run down the stairs.

Thus, we see the inarguable role of cognitive function in human performance and the need for cognitive training.

If we are interested in training ourselves as generalists, then we need cognitive processing and accurate decision making just as much as we need to train our muscles and cardiovascular system. Probably moreso. Athletes and special forces operatives have even more to gain from this kind of training. We need to train reflexes, attention, decision making, sports vision, and more.

Make no mistake: this is the difference between good and great athletes.

Make no mistake: this is the difference between good and great athletes. This is what really matters in a high-stakes situation. And I believe this is the future of human performance.

So, the question becomes: can these things be trained? And how?

(Note: “Train reflexes” is really a misnomer. This is more about training processing and reactions, which are slightly different.)

Effective Training for Reactions, Focus, and Decision Making

Can we train reflexes, focus, reaction times, and decision making? The short answer is yes. There is more than enough evidence now to suggest that this is possible.

Train reflexes with neuroplasticity

As for how, that part is a little more complex.

We know that the brain is highly capable of changing shape and adapting to stimuli, thanks to something called brain plasticity (neuroplasticity). But the challenge with brain training, as I’ve discussed before, is that it is often too-far removed from the real-world situations it is attempting to prepare the individual for.

Dual N-Back

The perfect example is the dual n-back test. This is a concentration task that requires the subject to look for spaced repetitions of certain sounds or symbols, and has been shown to improve working memory, focus (study), and task-switching ability. Working memory refers to our ability to hold information in our mind so that we can manipulate it. In this case, the user must store the recent chunk of the sequence in their working memory in order to be able to scan for a match. We use similar skills when we carry over numbers in math, or when we remember a phone number to write it down.

However, it is not clear if this can boost fluid intelligence (study), if it will train reflexes, or if it has useful transfer for, say, athletes. There is possibly some benefit, however. We see, for example, that dual n-back tests can improve dual-task performance. This, in turn, is a critical skill for athletes (study). Interestingly, this study used a “force production” test involving a leg extension resistance machine in conjunction with a calculation test.

Domain Specific Training vs Multi-Modal

But this could be better. Dual n-back, and exercises like it, train the brain in a domain-specific manner. The user is focussed on a screen looking at digits (and possibly listening out for sounds). This is far removed from the way that an athlete  uses their working memory: to maintain a map of the positions of each player on the pitch and the ball, combining information from multiple senses, while also making snap decisions. Thus we do not see wide adoption of dual n-back training among athletic coaches or military. Likewise, this is not the way that most people use working memory in the workplace, in social interactions, etc.

As with physical training, we likely need greater specificity to see near and far transfer to other tasks (near transfer meaning beneficial to related tasks, far transfer meaning beneficial across a wide gamut of activities).

3D Object Tracking

A more realistic way to bolster working memory may be through 3D multiple object tracking.

3D multiple object tracking is exactly what it sounds like: a task that challenges the individual to track multiple objects as they move through 3D space. One study found that this was more effective than dual n-back for improving working memory (study). Another study, however, found that the 3D tracking tool used by a lot of this research, NeuroTracker, did not improve multitasking performance (study). Likewise, NeuroTracker could not offer near-transfer by improving performance on a similar object-tracking task (study), which is disappointing and perhaps surprising. This may be due to the relatively limited-scope of NeuroTracker which trains visual attention in isolation – more on this later.

3D Multiple Object Training for Reflexes

It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of this research was conducted by NeuroTracker.

Another study also found that another 3D multiple object tracking tool could be used to improve player accuracy in passing a football (study), though not in dribbling and shooting. This makes sense if you consider the importance of working memory in accurately tracking the positions of teammates on the pitch.

See also: REAKT Performance Trainer Review – The Most Effective Brain Training Tool Yet?

There is certainly scope for tools such as this in an athletic/military setting. At the very least, coaches should aim to recreate the kind of cognitive challenges faced by athletes, rather than focussing purely on skills and strength.

Visual Attention

What’s more, is that these kinds of 3D tracking tasks may also be effective for improving vision and training reflexes. This is because they train “visual attention.”

Sports Vision Training

When you consider the huge amount of information that comes in through the human eye at any one time, and the bottle-neck in terms of the amount of information we can attend to, you realise that what we think of as a kind of “snapshot” of the world around us, is actually a patchwork made up of much smaller “keyhole images.” It’s impossible for us to take in everything at once, so instead we must scan our eyes around and create an image from piecemeal information, schemas, and assumptions. Much of what we think we’re seeing, is in fact already out of date (or entirely missing or fabricated). This is why working memory is tied so closely to our visuospatial landscape (studies) – our ability to manipulate information in our mind’s eye is the glue that holds all this together.

We can’t accurately attend to something happening outside our attention.

This means that we can’t accurately attend to something happening outside our attention, creating “inattentional blindness.” This is a problem if you’re John Wick and a bad guy just drew his weapon. It’s also a problem if you’re a driver and someone steps out into the road.

To train reflexes and reactions, we need to first ensure we are aware of what is going on around us.

What is Sports Vision?

Fortunately, we have specific systems that activate in response to movement, sound, or contrast and activate our salience network, thus directing our attention toward these changes. This is how we can train reflexes with sports vision.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always enough to account for the “inattentional blindness” that can occur, or the related “change blindness.”

This is why traditional vision tests alone may be insufficient in testing a person’s suitability for driving, for example. Especially as we age and our visual field begins to shrink; tracking objects can help to increase the field of vision by enhancing perception in the peripheral vision, while at the same time improving visual processing – allowing more information to be incorporated and acted upon. Plasticity can occur within the visual cortex and this can even reverse some vision loss (study, study).

Train Visual Attention and Reactions

And, of course, enhancing this further has benefit for athletes and assassins.

How to Train Reflexes and Sports Vision for Athletes

Alongside computer games, there are other physical exercises that could be used to train these skills. Bouncing and catching a ball while keeping the vision fixated on a central target is one option. Likewise, dribbling two balls simultaneously.

You can also try bouncing a reaction ball, which is an oddly shaped ball that bounces erratically. As the user can’t predict the movement of the ball as they normally would, they are instead required to track and catch the ball. This requires more focus and attention than simply playing catch.

Juggling may have similar benefits, as the juggler must track the positions of multiple objects simultaneously, usually using peripheral vision. This has been shown to actually increase grey matter in brain regions relating to sports vision (study).

For the peripheral vision, there’s the “toothpick and straw” method that involves picking up a straw using two toothpicks and looking straight ahead.

Decision making

But being able to juggle a lot of information in the mind’s eye is not enough (see what I did there?). More important, is being able to quickly and effectively act on that information. This is, at least partly, dependent on visual processing speed – the ability to rapidly act on large amounts of information coming into the brain. This generally declines as we get older, but perhaps it needn’t be so.

Train reflexes with reaction ball

We know that this can be trained. Several studies have shown that visual processing speed can be enhanced (study) using computer-based training.

Another clear example of this is seen in gaming. Gamers that play fast-paced FPS (first-person shooter) games, show a superior ability to make rapid decisions with no loss in accuracy. They also demonstrate enhanced visual acuity and spatial awareness (study).

Gamers can benefit from learning to train reflexes, but gaming itself is also fantastic for developing keen reaction times and processing.

What’s really important to understand here, though, is that the precise benefits offered will very much depend on the computer game in question. This is a pet peeve of mine: that researchers will lump games together, not recognizing just how different the controls and objectives are in a game like Metroid: Prime vs. Call of Duty. Even the gaming set-up could have a big impact. Surely a multi-monitor set-up will involve more of your peripheral vision?

Brain Training and Gaming

I’d LOVE to see a study of Doom: Eternal in particular. That game forces you to make countless microdecisions under extreme pressure for extended periods. Choosing the right gun to use depending on the situation, selecting the most pertinent target to attack first, positioning yourself optimally, and knowing when to top-up any one of your three different resources, are just some of the complex demands placed on you. A single arena could last 10-15 minutes without letting up, and by the time you’ve been kicking ass for 7 minutes, the stakes are high.

I believe Doom: Eternal could be an ideal tool to train reflexes, attention, and decision making in a fun manner.

Doomguy is badass

Could you burn calories playing Doom at a high enough level? We know that heart rates of esports athletes are typically in the region of 160-180 beats per minute!

Playing Doom: Eternal could make you almost as bad-ass as the real Doom Slayer.

In short, playing Doom: Eternal could make you almost as bad-ass as the real Doom Slayer.

Limitations of Games as Brain Training Tools

The limitation of games like this? That of course would be the 2-dimensional and static nature. Like dual n-back, action games do not immerse you in the action or require you to monitor your peripheral vision – you are dealing, therefore, with smaller amounts of information. Not only that, but you won’t be increasing your visual field. In real-life, not everything happens right in-front of you!

Focus, attention, decision making

The number of inputs is reduced even more significantly, as you aren’t listening to the extremely dense amount of input coming from your body. This combination of information creates the “visuo-motor landscape.” It is not enough to know what’s happening in-front of you, you must also be aware of your body’s position and relative distance from the subject/target. This is what allows you to select the correct action: to leap up and catch the ball, or to quickly grab a trashcan lid and use it to block incoming gunfire.

Being able to calculate the best action is useless if you can’t also act on that decision!

Situational Awareness

A lot of this relates to what the military describe as Situational Awareness: knowledge of what’s going on in a complex, dynamically changing environment. There is some evidence to suggest that this correlates with overall working memory (study) and may be very similar to the kinds of quick decision-making and situational awareness required by athletes and even gamers, to a lesser extent.

Situational Awareness

The Simon Task

Another useful method for measuring and training processing speed is the Simon Task. This could help train reflexes and possibly even make you “wittier” in conversation!

See also: How Coding, Music, and Writing Help You to Think Big

The Simon Task uses interference to make an otherwise simple reaction task more cognitively demanding. For example, you might be tasked with clicking right when you see the word “right” on the screen, and left when you see the word “left.” The rub is that occasionally, the word right will appear on the left side of the screen – and vice versa. This is harder than it sounds and it gets harder as you become more tired. It is not enough to simply react, you must decide how to act.

There’s one you can play online here.

Simon Task to Train Reflexes

Transfer

Interestingly, one study found that practicing the Simon Task could improve a Lacrosse player’s ability to target the ideal part of a goal (study). This is a great example of far-transfer, and shows how you can train reflexes and decision-making in a different context.

This is something we could very easily emulate in a training environment, though, by getting a subject to perform one of two actions depending on the stimuli and using various methods to interfere with this message (perhaps the command should be ignored and a visual demonstration should instead be followed). This would lend itself very well to drills like boxing combos and help to introduce a cognitive layer to that kind of training.

Interestingly, a study published in Neuropsychologica has shown that performance on both the Simon Task and similar Stroop Task can be improved through musical training.

Inhibitory Control to Train Reflexes

It’s not enough to simply train reflexes. You need to train “processing speed.” You need to think before you react and learn when not to use your reflexes.

Something else missing from many video games is inhibitory control: our ability to suppress inappropriate reactions. The way a game might imitate this is by presenting hostages and penalizing the player for shooting them. Most games don’t involve such elements, and thus this isn’t trained by gaming, in most cases (study). But if you’ve played House of The Dead, you’ll know there are exceptions.

Go No-Go Task

Practical Applications

This can be a very useful tool for athletes and other high performers. In one study, professional athletes demonstrated superior performance on a Stop Signal Task (study, study). This task requires the individual to react quickly to a stimulus unless it is presented alongside a “stop” signal. A similar concept is the Go/No-Go Task which requires the participant to either act or not on command, as quickly as possible.

Actively training response inhibition could potentially reduce civilian casualties

This is a skill that has very obvious crossover for military personnel. In one study, it was demonstrated that actively training response inhibition could potentially reduce civilian casualties (study). The study used a Go/No-Go Task, a stop-signal task, a stroop task, and a visual search task to train participants.

Psychomotor Vigilance

Developing quick reactions, decision making, and focus is one thing. Maintaining that heightened cognitive performance for long durations is another. It’s not enough to train reflexes if that heightened performance can only last ten seconds!

If two tennis players are equally matched, then the loser will likely be the one who loses concentration first. As the game drags on and each player gets tireder and starts to feel the pressure, maintaining that focus becomes harder. As I described earlier, the same challenge faces drivers, pilots, and surgeons working 10-hour shifts.

This is psychomotor vigilance.

Psychomotor vigilance can be measured with a psychomotor vigilance test (PVT). This is a simple reaction task where the challenge is to maintain focus for as long as possible. Vigilance is measured by the number of “false positives,” demonstrating the significant amount of mental energy involved in action inhibition (versus reactions).

How Emotion Affects Reactions

But it’s not just tiredness that can cause lapses in focus and reactions. Emotional stress can also have a huge impact, which is one reason we often perform worse when under pressure.

Healthy Lifestyle Meditation

Meditation has been shown to enhance psychomotor vigilance (study), which is not surprising given that most directive-meditation involves maintaining concentration for long periods. Thus, meditation can indirectly train reflexes. Countless studies show how this can result in greater emotional control, too, as the individual learns to ignore distracting thoughts and feelings.

The Hooded Box Test

The military has another approach to this. Only, somewhat more insidious.

The hooded-box test is a test that places the trainee under a hood that completely obscures their vision and hearing. This hood is then removed, revealing a unique scenario. Often this will be a combat scenario requiring target prioritization. Alternatively, it might be a woman asking for directions.

The candidate must respond to the situation in seconds.

This not only challenges decision making, action inhibition, and situational awareness, but also requires performance in a high-stress scenario. The test is designed to trigger a fear-response in the subject, and over time, this is thought to help desensitize them to those emotions and thus reduce the “lag time” that emotional responses can induce. This, in turn, can train reflexes.

How You Can Train Your Reactions, Focus, and Decision Making + Future Horizons

Throughout this article, I have pointed to a number of options for improving reactions, focus, and decision making. One of the most important takeaways though, is that sports themselves can improve a number of cognitive abilities; with athletes demonstrating better action/response inhibition, and even rapid learning for complex and dynamic visual scenes (study). If you don’t already play a sport, this could be an effective way to keep yourself sharp and improve all-round performance in everyday life.

Train reflexes and peripheral vision

Meanwhile, athletes themselves could benefit from focussing on those same abilities: focus, visual processing, task switching, object tracking, impulse control, and more. So too could gamers!

But perhaps the most promise, to my mind, lies with virtual reality. Virtual reality has the flexibility to create extremely cognitively demanding challenges, to constantly change those challenges up to build more resilient mental models, and to use strategies that make the training intrinsically motivating – addicting even. In short, it can do everything a regular video game can, but in a 3D space that allows full freedom of movement: that immerses the player and utilizes their complete visuo-motor landscape.

We’re a little way away from fully realizing this potential, in my opinion, but we’re remarkably close thanks to devices like the Oculus Quest and Quest 2 that offer inside-out, wireless movement tracking.

REAKT Performance Trainer

One company, NeuroTrainer, has already seized this opportunity with REAKT Performance Trainer. This is a fully 3D brain training tool for the Quest and Quest 2 that combines 3D object tracking, with inhibitory control, focus training, and more.

REAKT Performance Trainer

The game, ostensibly, involves blocking and dodging projectiles, but there’s a lot more going on under the hood. The projectiles, for instance, are fired from targets that must be constantly tracked as they move rapidly around the screen and hide among identical-looking distractors. Meanwhile, you are tasked with pulling a trigger to slow the movement of the harmful shots but must refrain from doing so for the other balls.

I have written a full review of REAKT that’s available to read on the site right now.

My Experiences

I went into this app concerned it might be gimmicky. Instead, I found a tool grounded in scientific evidence with fantastic potential to increase sports vision, reaction times, processing, and more. It cleverly integrates the most useful aspects of the go/no-go task, 3D object tracking tasks, a psychomotor vigilance task, and more. The promise is that, with time, you should start to notice gameplay seemingly “slow down” during sports. Which is awesome.

Virtual Reality Brain Training

The best part? After using REAKT for a couple of weeks, I genuinely saw improvements in my N-Back score and felt more alert. You can never *completely* rule out placebo, but I’m more sure of this than I have been of any nootropic.

You can get the app on the Quest Store right now, and I highly recommend it to athletes, pro gamers, and anyone interested in being Batman (hands up…). I’ll put a link in the description below. This is not a sponsored post, by the way. I just love it!

Mark my words: one of the primary applications for virtual reality going forward will be to not only train reflexes, but general cognitive performance.

NeuroTrainer

NeuroTrainer

It turns out that REAKT is a consumer release, and consists of a single simplified skill of a far more comprehensive suite of tools called “NeuroTrainer.” The NeuroTrainer system boasts a sensitive measurement and layered cognitive analytics platform, a broader package of precise training skills, and is in use by athletic teams and even has the interest of the military to improve:

  • Field of vision
  • Situational awareness
  • Decision speed
  • Task switching
  • Focus
  • Endurance (psychomotor vigilance)

Unfortunately, the tool is not commercially available right now. But NeuroTrainer was kind enough to let me have a go, after reading my review of REAKT. Predictably, this system has even more potential in my eyes (not to mention cooler music!), and I’m very excited to see what they do next. The company’s founder and chief scientist, Jeff Nyquist, told me that augmented reality is perhaps the next frontier. Imagine your regular training with unique goals and challenges added in, or with feedback and data overlayed on top. Now that would be something.

Oculus Quest 2 Brain Training

Fascinatingly, the tool itself was actually born from the observation that the game Halo contained many of the elements that would be required for an ideal training tool – particularly as a means to restore vision (study). The creators simply isolated those elements and then immersed the player entirely within that environment.

The Amazin Memory of Chimps

I leave you with the amazing ability of Chimpanzees to radically outclass humans in tasks that measure working memory (study). The prevailing theory is that humans have lost this capability through a “cognitive tradeoff.” We apparently “swapped” this photographic memory for a more useful abstract reasoning.

Cognitive Tradeoff Hypothesis

But I wonder if, perhaps, it’s not simply that we stopped training this ability. A chimpanzee, even one in captivity, will spend its entire day in a group of other chimps. It will move through trees and chase food. Tracking objects and predicting their movements is an ability it will train the entire day, every day. Maybe THIS is how we train reflexes – and everything else, for that matter.

If we did the same, rather than sitting in front of a computer all day, could we maybe achieve the same superhuman memory?

Who knew that the real-life John Wick was actually a Chimp?

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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