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Explaining Tunnel Vision

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

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.

Beyond vision

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.

Double duty

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.

Action Items

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.


If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.


Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.




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18 thoughts on “Explaining Tunnel Vision”

  1. Rich you again have hit on something that affects us daily, though for many of us more in the office environment as we struggle with today’s issues. Same would apply when we seem bogged down, and unable to grasp what is going wrong with what should be a simple process. Push back from the desk, take a walk around the firehouse, have a cup o’ coffee. Consequences are not as dire as on scene, but lesson would seem to apply. Thanks!

    1. This has helped me in general and had to find something helpful, this nailed it! I am forever grateful for the time you took to write this, especially the details.

      Eleanor G. Biddle

  2. Encysting is another cognitive phenomenon closely related to what you describe as tunnel vision. Dietrich Dörner pairs it with “thematic vagabonding” alongside two other cognitive phenomena that lead people to make ill-informed decisions in complex situations.

    Our tendency to bore in on a single detail of a situation often accompanies our inability to comprehend the elements of that situation as being related to one another in a non-linear or highly-interconnected way with multiple feedback loops. As such, we tend to spend to much time focusing on one thing or spend all of our time skipping from one thing to another in hopes of finding the common thread that connects them all.

    The tendency to see things this way is further complicated by our innate difficulty understanding situations that change in a non-linear way, especially when the rate of change is accelerating as is often the case in uncontrolled fires. The exponential rate of change in a situation makes it all the more problematic if we fail to see situations for what they are — unyielding in their complexity. By the time we realize we’re always too late, we’ve already been overtaken by circumstances we cannot control.

    As you’ve pointed out, complex undertakings like fighting uncontrolled fires always involve these attributes. While we may not be in a position to unravel the complexity and can do a far better job of responding to it as a whole rather than trying to dissemble and understand each discrete element, our responses to these situations can be boiled down to something not too dissimilar to that which we confront.

    Responses to fires and other emergencies require a the loose-tight coupling of many different elements. The tight aspect of the coupling involves the understanding of and commitment to a well-defined mission. The loose aspect relates to the need for every individual member of the team play a particular role and adapt the execution of that role to the conditions while keeping other team members well-informed of their perceptions and actions.

    In my view, avoiding the traps associated with encysting and “thematic vagabonding” requires us to spend a great deal more time and effort making sure our firefighters and officers have a thorough technical understanding of fire phenomena. Too much of what passes for training in the fire service is half-baked empiricism poorly grounded in theory, which in turn does a poor job of illustrating the big differences small changes in circumstances can make to the conditions firefighters face.

    This seems particularly relevant to the way we train firefighters to recognize and avoid the rapid deterioration of fire conditions in buildings. Too many situations described afterwards as “flashovers”, for instance, were nothing of the sort, and failure to understand why this is so compromises efforts to avoid putting others in the same situations again.

    1. I appreciate your response and now I have somewhere to turn! I am researching ways or methods to help my “tunnel vision” thinking, as I refer to it. I am a case worker for the department of social services, child welfare. I am what most people consider a first responder or investigator of child abuse and neglect. I feel as though our child welfare system is already so broken, we (social services) could benefit in more specialized training’s in regard to “tunnel vision” and our assessment process. I feel like so many of us, especially the workers who have been doing this for years, “miss” the important facts or even make “small” issues into big ones because we get too focused on one particular thing that “we” feel is important.

  3. Great article. Several “Command” thoughts pop up.

    1- Becoming emotional about losing the building.
    2- Having distractions in the command vehicle
    3- Having a long drawn out radio explanation to a simple yes/no question
    4- The lesser important radio transmission that detract from important messages
    5- Inattentive commanders or command assistants
    6- Inattentive company officers that require the IC to repeat or lose focus to get everyone on the same page

  4. Excellent article.
    Someone once said that no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy.
    We say “If you don’t have a plan B, you don’t have a plan at all.”
    The magic is knowing when to follow the plan and when to improvise, adapt and overcome. It seems to me that tunnel-vision is linked to emotional response.
    Do you concur?



    1. Thanks for the post and the question. I think tunneled attention/senses is a physiological response that results from stress and chemical/hormone releases that force the focus of attention. I’m confident there is an emotional component, but I don’t think emotions is the cause of tunnel attention. That noted, the more stressful a situation is, the more likely a person is to display the symptoms of tunneled attention. ~ Rich

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  7. You must have a mind reading device planted in my brain! You have described me! Thanks for the article. I am researching this because I have come to realize I have some challenges here. I am a nurse… not a first responder, but this is very relevent for me. Sometimes my tunnel vision helps me function better, but more often it leads to stupid mistakes. I don’t know why they didn’t teach us this stuff in nursing school!


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  11. Along with more & more subspecialities in medical sciences, this tunnel vision seems to be dangerous in diagnosis of the patient.
    A very apt explanation of tubular or tunnel vision .

  12. Excellent article!
    After a recent emergency encounter involving the rescue of a drowning person, I realized how I experienced tunnel vision.
    My focus was on getting a person partially submerged in the water, face down, showing no life signs aboard my vessel, contacting emergency services via radio, acknowledging the victim was receiving CPR treatment and piloting my boat ASAP to a nearby Coast Guard Station. There was another boat involved in the initial rescue. The skipper of that vessel jumped into the water to hold the victim from going under and assisted in getting him into my boat.
    I was “tunnel focused” on getting the victim to aid, and completely “ignored” the other skipper in the water; as to how he returned to; and safely boarded his boat. In reflection, I should have included that information in my Mayday call. Also, I was not aware of the name of his vessel, even though it was one in our fleet.
    The other item in reflection, is that even though there were about a dozen passengers aboard my boat; and I of course saw them; I don’t remember any audible conversations or reactions from them. The only audio I processed was from the radio coms and the lady providing CPR First Aid.
    ps The victim started breathing while in the care of the Coast Guard team. The lady aboard my boat who instantly performed the necessary CPR saved his life.

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