When it comes to developing 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, and then your situational awareness is flawed.

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 consequences. 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. There 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 are 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, it is called auditory exclusion.

Think of your visual processor as a checkout counter at a busy supermarket. At the counter is a very needy customer causes the clerk to focus all her attention on them. 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 another customer strolls. This customer cannot be 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 the 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 the audible information and the customer waiting in line is representative of visual information. The visual information cannot be processed and the responder will not see the clue.

There is one minor variation to what happens when the visual information is denied entry into the processor. It does leave the store in a fit of rage. Rather, it will just go do some more shopping or go to the next counter and be processed. The stroll to the counter comes in the way of continuing 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.
  • 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.