Oh, Say Can You See? Tunnel Vision! by Lyn Bates
Can you see everything that is going on around you right now? Unless you are visually handicapped, the answer is undoubtedly “Sure!”. We are so accustomed to seeing “everything” whenever our eyes are open that we take this ability for granted, and assume that it will always be there. It won’t be. Here are a couple of examples to show you why not.
Situation 1. When I was clearing a house, gun in hand, at one of my first tactical matches, I was on high alert, adrenaline pumping. I knew someone was probably in there, with a gun (loaded, like mine, with Simunition so we could shoot one another “safely”). I surveyed each room carefully as I moved through it, especially the main room that had a card table with stuff on it and chairs that nobody could hide behind, but also large boxes near the room’s perimeter, and several doors to other potentially dangerous areas, as well as a stairway up to somewhere else.
After I finished the stage, the range officer asked me why I hadn’t picked up the gun and taken it with me. “What gun?” I asked. We went back through the main room, and there, on the card table with some plates and cups and junk was a revolver. I had never seen it. Tunnel vision had kept me focused on looking for a large thing (a person) or somewhere a person could hide. Nothing else made it to my consciousness. I would have seen the gun if I’d just been walking through the room normally, rather than searching.
Situation 2. My aunt and uncle, careful folk with lots of urban smarts, were sitting in the lobby of a fancy New York hotel. A man sitting near them spilled some coffee on himself and my uncle. My aunt took tissues out of her purse to help them clean up, and set the purse down close to her where she thought it was safe, but she did not notice the coffee-spiller’s accomplice, who managed to make off with her money while the mop-up operation was going on. My aunt, who normally would have been quite aware of anyone that close to her, didn’t see a thing. This type of robbery is repeated thousands of times a day by pairs of criminals who understand how to create, and take advantage of, tunnel vision.
Situation 3. You are on the range, not just plinking but practicing hard. You put a full mag downrange as fast as you accurately can, do a mag change at a pace that pushes your personal best, and again you empty the gun at the target as if your life depended on it. After the last shot, you are looking eagerly downrange to assess the quality of those fast hits. Do you notice the person who walked up near you while you were shooting? Probably not. Your mental and visual focus were elsewhere. Tunnel vision.
What is Tunnel Vision? It doesn’t mean seeing the world as if it was at the end of a tunnel -- if it were that easy, you would be aware of it and could simply redirect the tunnel anywhere you wanted to look. Tunnel vision is insidious because you think you are seeing everything that is going on around you, but you aren’t.
Tunnel vision is a natural, and nearly universal, part of the body alarm reaction that we all experience in high-stress situations. It can make small things, like the bore of a .22, or a 3” knife blade, look huge, like a .44 Magnum or a butcher knife. It can make it impossible to judge distances accurately. It can make it difficult, or impossible to see things your peripheral vision would normally pick up.
If you are ever in a life-threatening situation, or just a very stressful one, you will probably experience tunnel vision. You will think you are seeing normally, but you won’t be.
Dr. Joseph Sciammarella, who is associated with the Modern Warrior school in New York, explains it as a survival mechanism that involves two parts, enlarging the pupil to allow more light to enter the eye, and changes in the shape of the eye’s lens that result in reduced depth perception. This natural reaction has evolved to protect us by letting us focus on a single predator in a fairly simple environment at not very much of a distance. This is decidedly sub-optimal if you are in a visually complex environment and may be dealing with more than one adversary.
Tunnel vision affects 82% of people under the stress of critical incidents, according to Dr. Alexis Artwhol, who has carefully investigated the phenomenon. Only diminished hearing affects more people.
Can you stop tunnel vision from happening? Not completely, but there are many things you can do to train yourself to compensate for the worst of its effects.
First of all, believe that it will happen, and make your post-incident planning accordingly. This is why you should never try to quantify how far someone was from you, or what caliber their gun was, or how big their knife was when you had to shoot them -- you are very likely to be wrong, and the jury won’t understand why your sworn testimony contradicts the physical evidence.
Secondly, consciously practice using your peripheral vision. Right now, think about what you can see to the side while you are staring at this magazine. It is probably a bit more than you were consciously aware of before you thought about it. The more you consciously exercise your peripheral vision, the more likely it will be there when you need it.
Third, train yourself to scan the surrounding area after you shoot, even if your target is a bullseye down range. Turn your whole head, not just your eyeballs! There’s a right way and a wrong way to scan, so let’s get into the details.
Do an experiment here and now. When I give the command, you will look up from this page straight ahead, then you will imagine that someone gives you commands to “Look left!” and then “Look right!”, and you will carry out those commands. Ready? Do it now!
If you are like most folks, you rather rapidly turned your head to look past your left shoulder, and then just as rapidly turned it 180 degrees to look to your right side. The major stops in your eye movements, if plotted in a diagram, would look something like Figure 1.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, if you had just had to shoot someone in front of you, and you were looking around for a possible accomplice, your eyes skimmed very fast over an awful lot of territory in each of those 90 degree segements, and probably didn’t really see very much.
Also, you probably looked at much the same distance as your eyes moved. That is, if you were looking straight ahead at the wall of a room, your eyes in positions 2 and 3 were focused on other walls, and as you were scanning between the positions, your eyes kept pretty much the same focus. If you were reading this magazine outside, and were looking far out when you were eyes front, you probably kept that distance focus as you rapidly looked left and right.
At this particular moment, you aren’t under a lot of stress, so you didn’t miss seeing much, but under an adrenaline dump and body alarm reaction, if you have only practiced this rapid head-swinging at a single focal distance, you will miss a lot.
A much more effective way of scanning is to slow down just a bit, and to force yourself to alternately focus on something close and something far as your head turns. In a room, this may mean focusing on (not just glancing over) something on a table, then looking into the corner of the room, then back to a nearby chair, then up to the top of a bookcase. If you are outside, it might mean looking high and far into the distance, and then at the ground a few yards away.
The arc of your head to the left and right is the same as before, but you have more points to focus on along the way, and they are at differing distances, as shown in Figure 2.
Try it out right now!
Were you aware how much more you were actually seeing? With practice, it is very fast, and you are much less likely to miss something of importance.
You’ll find this alternating far-near scanning pattern easy to practice, and it has unexpected benefits. Whether you are looking for your car keys on a messy desk, a child at the beach, or Waldo in one of those children’s books, you will find what you are looking for much faster and easier.
And when someone approaches you in the parking lot of a supermarket late one evening, your ability to casually scan the surroundings this way while sizing up the situation may save your bacon. Robbery teams don’t like to be made, and may call off their plan if they think you’ve spotted the second man.
When looking around, either to break tunnel vision or to search for a possible additional assailant, don’t just look left and right. Look near to far, and high to low, as you scan left and right. You will see much, much more!
This article first appeard in the Nov-Dec 1999 issue of Women&Guns magazine. Copyright (c) 1999 Lyn Bates