When it comes to developing and maintaining situational awareness, tunnel vision is a big deal. Effective situational awareness is developed from having a broad perception of the environment in which you are operating. As your focus narrows, you start to miss things. Those “missed things” are like lost puzzle pieces, leaving holes in your understanding of what is happening. Thus, situational awareness is flawed. This article provides an explanation for the phenomenon we know as tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision is defined as one’s tendency to focus on a single goal or point of view. The more important the goal or the more threatening a stimulus is perceived to be, the more likely a person is to focus attention on it. In the first responder arena, tunnel vision is a big deal because much of what responders do is high risk and high consequence. Responders are also goal driven, sometimes to the detriment of their own safety.
While tunnel vision can limit perception, it can also have a debilitating effect on hearing. From the perspective of brain science, this makes sense. Let me explain. There is a tight connection between the audible and visual processors in the brain.
When audible messages come in, they are processed in the audible cortex. Then they are packaged up and sent off to the visual cortex. There, they are formed into images. You already know this if you have ever witnessed someone saying “I see what you’re saying” or if you’ve ever heard someone say “Do you see what I mean” after giving a verbal explanation to something.
The visual cortex in your brain has to do double duty. It has to process visual information sent by the eyes AND it has to process audible information sent by the ears. The problem is, there’s only so much capacity in the processor and when it reaches its max, something has to give. What gives depends on what the person is paying attention to.
If you’re highly focused on a visual stimulus, your visual cortex may not process your audible messages. The result is, you don’t hear something. In science, we call it auditory exclusion.
Let me explain it by using an analogy. Think of your visual processor as the checkout counter at a busy supermarket. At the counter is a very needy customer. (I trust we’ve all been in line behind this person at some time in our lives). This needy customer causes the clerk the focus all of her attention on him. Much the same thing happens when the brain focuses on a piece of visual information. All of the brain’s attention is consumed.
Then, up to the counter strolls another customer. This customer cannot get waited on because the first customer is so needy and time consuming. In a fit of frustration, the second customer storms out of the store, leaving all their groceries in the basket, vowing never to return.
In this instance, the second customer is a piece of audible information trying to get serviced by the check out clerk (the visual processor). This is exactly what can happen when a piece of audible information cannot make its way into the visual processor in the brain. When it can’t get in, it leaves and it never returns. And thus, auditory exclusion – the person does not hear what is said.
The only way the store is going to make the sale is if the customer decides to return later on. In the case of excluded audible information, the only way the brain is going to hear the message is if the sender decides to repeat it.
Now, let’s reverse the process. The needy customer at the checkout counter is now representative of audible information and the customer waiting in line is representative of visual information. The visual information cannot get processed. Thus, the responder will not see the clue.
There is one minor variation to what happens when visual information is denied entry into the processor. It doesn’t leave the store in a fit of rage. Rather, it will just go do some more shopping and come back later when the checkout clerk is free. Once the needy customer is gone, the visual information can easily stroll back up to the counter and be processed. The stroll to the counter comes in the way of continually scanning the visual environment. When the visual clue gets seen again and the counter clerk is not tied up, the information gets processed.
Signs of tunnel vision
It may be difficult to recognize you’re suffering from tunnel vision because you may be unaware of what you’re not hearing and what you’re not seeing. Recognizing that you’re suffering from tunnel vision is an important step toward working your way out of it.
Common signs include:
- Having an intense focus on a visual stimuli that results in screening out of peripheral sights and sounds
- Displaying irritation with anyone or anything that interrupts your focus
- Being rigid and unwilling to accept suggestions to change your action plan
- Refusing offers for assistance, including offers to lighten your workload
- Being reluctant to take breaks from your work
- Confusion with what is going on around you (because you’re only seeing or hearing part of the message)
- Being told things by others that don’t make sense
Rich Gasaway’s Advice
When it comes to tunneled senses the advice I can offer is fairly limited because the phenomenon is not consciously controllable. In other words, you can focus attention on visual or audible stimulation without realizing it and spend a long time in that position of focus without realizing it. The best advice I can offer is to use your conscious brain to counteract the known effects of the subconscious brain. This is accomplished by first having an awareness of your vulnerabilities (the intent of this article) and second by forcing yourself (consciously) to recognize the signs listed above and to counteract them by imposing behavioral changes to counter them.
For example, when finding yourself intensely focused on a visual stimuli, audible stimuli or a task, force yourself to back away, if only momentarily, and take in the broader surroundings. If interrupted, make a note of your leave-off point and deal with the interruption. Then get back on task. When facing a recommendation to take a different course of action, force yourself to pause and give consideration to the validity of changing course. When offered assistance, see it as a way to help prevent overwhelmed and tunneled senses and freely accept help. Take frequent mental breaks, even if they are short. If you are confused, seek clarification from credible sources. Avoid filling in the unknown information with assumptions. When receiving information that does not make sense, assume there is information you have missed and ask for clarification.
1. Discuss a time when tunnel vision created a challenge to your situational awareness.
2. Discuss a time when auditory exclusion created a challenge to your situational awareness.
3. Discuss strategies that you have for preventing tunnel vision and auditory exclusion.
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