Thursday, March 6, 2014

Myths and Misconceptions about Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision, Adrenaline, and Combat Effects
By W. Hock Hochheim

“… some police departments train their officers to quickly sidestep 
when facing an armed assailant on the theory that the officers, 
in effect, disappear from the criminal's field of sight from their tunnel 
vision for one precious moment.” 

     DISAPPEAR! Really? One sidestep off to invisibility? For a MOMENT! We have all heard that moving while drawing a weapon is a sound strategy for several reasons, becoming a moving target, but becoming … like ... like ... invisible?

     Even the renown, beloved Killologist, Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, extols this idea on page 69 of his popular book On Combat. He goes on to say this method is widely taught to police officers. Widely taught by him, maybe, but not accepted in coast-to-coast doctrine, because a certain level of common sense finds it very flaky.

     This type of side-step invisibility is about the most extreme confabulation on tunnel vision I have heard from some trainers. A great many trainers would never say this. And some martial arts instructors like to quote these military and police trainers to sound “in the know,” “hip,” “cool,” and an “insider” to their civilian students. Who doesn't like to quote Grossman? (well ... me, but....) Very few question these sources and just regurgitate what they read or hear. Is a sidestep into invisibility a tunnel vision issue? Or is it that you have become a moving target in a very complex situation with numerous variables? Is adrenaline always blinding you and your enemy?

"Is a sidestep into invisibility a tunnel vision issue? Or is it that you have become a
moving target in a very complex situation with numerous variables?"

     When “normal” people hear the term “tunnel vision,” they think about a certain, dedicated concentration of focus. They might think of a person so dedicated, so goal-oriented that he or she zeros in on an objective and ignores distractions to pierce and leap obstacles. The definition is enjoined with the idea that this success might happen at the expense of a social life or other normal distractions that bring a negative flavor to the term.

     Medical people, especially those associated with optometry, think first about “the loss of peripheral vision with retention of central vision, resulting in a constricted, circular, tunnel-like field of vision. The normal human visual field extends to approximately 60 degrees nasally (toward the nose, or inward) from the vertical meridian in each eye to 100 degrees temporally (away from the nose, or outward) from the vertical meridian, and approximately 60 degrees above and 75 below the horizontal meridian.” A reduction in this range may be caused by a series of medical maladies.

     But there are some in the police and military fields who also consider tunnel vision as a temporary, mandatory symptom of a problem which they like to attribute to “adrenaline.” Most everyone knows that adrenaline (or epinephrine) is naturally produced in high-stress or physically exhilarating situations. The so-called “adrenaline dump.” It actually dumps twice, once in you in the beginning and more or less dumps out of you in the end. And many instructors will say that adrenaline always causes a vision tunnel that is described as having to "look through a toilet paper tube."

 ... having to "look through a toilet paper tube." 

     Under stress, the armed citizen will experience two physical handicaps: "Tunnel Vision" and "Auditory Exclusion." These are normal physical responses to the adrenaline surge. Tunnel Vision is when peripheral sight is diminished, and all the shooter can see is what is directly in front of him. One could say he has "blinders on" at this point. Auditory Exclusion is when the hearing shuts off. To break "Tunnel Vision," the armed citizen must execute a "quick check" over each shoulder and then back to the target. Left, right, target – a citizen gun instructor and writer, who is scribing the most common pop observations on adrenaline and shooting. 

     This view is totally accepted by the masses. Actually, I am surprised he has only listed two of the typical handicaps.

     For the last 60 or so years, adrenaline has been both revered and reviled. Many decades ago, adrenaline was generally respected as a power source to help you survive war, crime, and accidents. “God's gift,” so to speak. But since the late 1980s, adrenaline has taken on ogre-like characteristics in the doctrines of more than a few martial trainers. While it is said that it will make little old ladies lift automobiles off of crushed grandchildren in car wrecks, others say it will rob you of your critical thinking, your hearing, your fine motor skills, make you urinate and defecate in your pants, and, yes, … yes, many swear that it will always give you a case of toilet-paper-tube tunnel vision at the very worst possible time when you need your vision the most. Adrenaline - an ogre or a blessing? A life saver or an obstacle in saving lives? Which is it?

     Seeking that answer, a current internet search on the subject of combat stress and tunnel vision will yield quite a bit of information. Unfortunately, quite a bit of this is the same info repeated over and over. Not much challenged or questioned.

     One source you will find over and over again is a survey conducted by Psychologist Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a longtime friend and consultant to law enforcement. She administered a written survey years ago called Perceptual Distortions in Combat to 141 police officers about their shooting experiences over a five-year period. It covered numerous topics, and one was about tunnel vision. Various sources like re-quoting Artwohl and stated that 79% or 80% on up to 82% of the officers reported a case of tunnel vision when they shot. This survey steamrolled through the law enforcement community and created a flurry of misconceptions about adrenaline and tunnel vision. Information that, once in the wrong hands, perpetrated these odd ideas such as the aforementioned “one sidestep to invisibility.” (I do not believe Dr. Artwohl is responsible for any of the subsequent misconceptions and interpretations; she was just conducting an important test.)

     Lawrence Gonzales wrote an otherwise very good book called Deep Survival - Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why in 2003, and on page 38 he quickly reports a one-liner that "police officers who have been shot report tunnel vision" in a very quick, offhand remark. Oh, says who exactly, Lawrence? The steam just keeps rolling on....

     The process of “seeing” the scene around you is more than just the medical issues mentioned above. The eyes and mind (and later memory) must also cooperate. Though one third of the brain's activity is devoted to the overall process of seeing, you cannot digest the full "letter box" view of the landscape in detail all at once. It must be scanned. “The resolution in your peripheral vision is roughly equivalent to looking through a frosted shower door, yet you enjoy the illusion of seeing the periphery clearly,” reports Baylor neuroscientist David Eagleman. “Consider the fact that we are not aware of the boundaries of our visual field.” This illusion, as Dr. Eagleman calls it in his book, Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain, contributes as reference points to the definition and memory of tunnel vision.

     A John Hopkins study led by Dr. Steven Yantis, a professor in the Dept. of Psychological and Brain Sciences, tracked how the human brain handles competing demands for attention. Dr. Yantis reports that the brain has limited capacity for paying attention and recording what it perceives. It shifts among competing stimuli to accommodate what seems most important and blocks out the rest. This is everyday attention focus and a form of tunnel vision.

     The eyes and the mind working together. Dr. Bill Lewis of Force Science Research Center based at Minnesota State University-Mankato, a man leading all the significant and groundbreaking work in the field of officer-involved-shootings, says on seeing, "This process of selecting some information and rejecting or being blind to other information is a normal and constant feature of human performance at all levels. Virtually any amount of concentration on one thing will cause this 'inattentional blindness' to occur in the senses that are not being used. The key here is focused attention. Has the reader ever put on a CD to play and then been so preoccupied on a task they didn't hear a single song?"

     Dr. Lewinski goes on, “In baseball, it takes 54/100ths of a second for a fastball traveling at 90 mph to travel from the pitcher's mound to home plate. A baseball player who is focused on hitting the ball, whether under the stress of competition or just during practice, is usually so attentionally limited by his focus on the grip of the ball in the pitcher's hand, the motion of the pitcher's arm, and the initial path of the ball that during that half a second - if he truly is focused - he would not be able to inform us about anything else going on in the playing field, including the feeling of the bat in his own hand. This is usually not important for him, and no one is concerned about this. But when the same phenomenon occurs to an officer in a gunfight, it becomes of major significance."

     In the shooting world, most instructors demand a shooter look at their front sights, actually ordering and demanding them to tunnel vision down and in on their barrel's tip and thin slivers of sights. It would be safe to say that a majority of shooting instruction on the planet teaches this "front sight method," in constant argument with the point-shooters. At the same time, in their next doctrinal paragraph so to speak, they berate and accuse adrenaline for the ill-effects of tunnel vision. What do they think aiming is? A preponderance of shooters will suggest always shooting with both eyes open, which is difficult and unnatural for many but which allows for a more open field of vision. Still, shooters will experience various seconds or half seconds of small attention focus. They (as with our quote above) also suggest that the shooter always keep looking around to break the wicked spell of tunnel vision, especially to his sides or back - the ubiquitous “check your 360.” But at the very instant of the shoot, you can't just start looking around. And what many do not grasp is that you will still be exercising tunnel vision while you do look around. In both solutions, attention-focus and/or tunnel vision will still naturally occur. Yet it is thoughtlessly declared a handicap because someone in the steamroll said so. It seems like a shallow hypocrisy. A gap in thinking. A lack of grasping the big picture.

     A calmer, cooler mind might wonder why all 100% of Dr. Artwohl's survey respondents didn't say they experienced tunnel vision in their shootouts. Every time someone shoots a pistol at any target, live or paper, it is an exercise in tunnel vision, an exercise in focus and attention. In fact, whether you are in a gunfight, on a shooting range, watching your favorite football team on television, driving down the street, eating dinner, or looking at your watch, your eyes and brain are always processing information through a certain tunnel vision, attention focus, and all within limited peripheral vision.

     Dr. Lisa Sanders is a renown medical diagnostician and consultant on the famous TV show “House.” In her recent book, Every Patient Tells a Story, she adds to this tunnel vision debate. By now, we are all familiar with the popular “attention test” where experts challenge people to watch a film of basketball players and count how many times the team in the white shorts passes the ball. Your attention is completely on Team White and the ball. She reports:

     “My task, once the video started, was to watch the white team and keep track of how many times the ball was passed between players, keeping separate counts of when it was passed overhead and when it was bounced from person to person. The image started to move, and I kept my eyes glued to the white team's basketball as it was passed silently among the moving mass of black and white bodies. I got up to six overhead passes and one bounce pass, and I lost track. Determined not to give up, I kept going until the thirty-second video was complete.

     "Eleven overhead passes and two bounce passes, I ventured. I told Chun that I got a little confused in the middle. Despite that, I'd done a good job, he told me. I missed only one overhead pass. Then he asked, 'Did you see anything unusual in the video?' No, I saw nothing at all out of the ordinary.

     'Did you see a gorilla in the video?'

     'A gorilla? No, I had definitely not seen a gorilla.'

     'I'm going to show you the video again, and this time, no counting, just look at the game.'

     He restarted the video. The white and black teams sprang back into action. Eighteen seconds into the game - around the time I lost my concentration - I saw someone (a woman, I find out later) in a gorilla suit enter the hallway court on the right. She strolled casually to the middle of the frame, beat her chest like a cartoon gorilla from a children's TV show, then calmly exited out of the left side of the picture. Her on-camera business lasted eight seconds, and I hadn't seen her at all.

     If you had asked me if I thought that I could miss a gorilla - or even a woman in a gorilla suit - strolling through the picture, I would have agreed that it was impossible to overlook such an extraordinary event. And yet I did. So did more than half of those who were given the same task by Daniel J. Simons in his lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign. How is that possible?

     We have tremendous faith in our ability to see what is in front of our eyes. And yet the world provides us with millions of examples that this is not the case. How often have you been unsuccessful in looking for an object and recruited the help of someone who finds it immediately right in front of you? Or had the embarrassing encounter with a friend who confronts you angrily after you "ignored" his wave the night before while scanning for an open seat in a crowded movie theater? According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are over six million car accidents every year. In many of these crashes, drivers claim that they had looked where they were going and simply hadn' t seen the object with which they collided - evidence that people are regularly capable of not seeing what's in front of their eyes, what Sherlock Holmes might have called seeing without perceiving.

"You see Watson but you do not perceive."

(Ground-breaking, important college textbook on this subject and an absolute must read. Perception, Cognition and Decision Training by Dr John Vickers. It is packed with the latest research, much about this subject. In one part she covers how novice athletes facing a challenge look everywhere - too many unimportant places. Moderate athletes do better, and elite athletes look exactly where they need to look to determine their next move.) 

     Researchers call this phenomenon "inattention blindness" because we often fail to notice an object or event simply because we are preoccupied with an intentionally demanding task. Our surprise when experiencing this very common event derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the brain works. We think of our eyes like movie cameras capturing all that is before us as we choose what to focus on at the moment. We might not be paying attention to everything, but we assume, first, that we will be able to recognize any important event that occurs and, second, that, if necessary, we can always rewind the movie and play it back in the theater of the mind. What we missed the first go-round would be noticed when we remembered the event.

     Dr. Sanders was not in an adrenalized state, just trying to count ball passes when she viewed the video. She also probably didn't see the proverbial flower pot beside the TV, no more than our off-duty police officer watching his favorite running back on his big screen TV. The brain must see and care to remember.

     The adrenaline rush actually improves vision! Medical experts report that the adrenaline rush from stress dilates the eyes, improving vision. "In life or death situations, tunnel vision can be a life saver because it brings focus to the task at hand. Being cranked up on adrenaline can also make you jumpy and super aware of gleams of light and shadows," reports clinical therapist Paul Dooley. "Pupils dilate to let more light into the eyes in order to increase visual acuity," says Dr. Veronique Mead. There is plenty of clinical evidence that adrenaline also increases vision and that these unscrutinized reports of general tunnel vision are really just intense seconds of clear attention focus. Many veterans report enhanced senses during dangerous encounters.

"Many veterans report enhanced senses during dangerous encounters."

     Another renown USA police vet and trainer, Dave Spaulding, reports, "The various phases of body alarm reaction that have been discussed over the years such as tunnel vision, slow motion movement, loss of digital dexterity, and the like were all recalled by the subjects interviewed (over 200 people). None of the people I spoke with remember suffering all phases, but everyone remembers suffering at least one of the sensations listed under the category of body alarm reaction. Those that understood what was happening to them better handled the sensation during the encounter versus the people who did not. Without a doubt, forewarned is forearmed."

     Do all gunfighters wrestle with some form of attention focus/tunnel vision? In the very generic sense explained above, probably yes. Is all the tunnel vision reported in all gunfights the result of evil adrenaline? Yes, and quite possibly no. It is simply impossible to say given all the factors. Too many variables. How could anyone read this science by these experts and say otherwise? How are thousands of our soldiers and Marines functioning in chaotic firefights on numerous landscapes versus multiple enemies, all looking through this "toilet paper tube" caused by ogre adrenaline?

     My personal experiences with this would be anecdotal, but I have never had debilitating tunnel vision as so fearfully described. Focused vision? Yes. I usually have never felt more wide awake, alert, and ever-so-alive than in dangerous situations. Did I zero in and out on things? Yes. Yes, of course. Without a doubt, I have focused in on small things. I would have to answer "yes" to Dr. Artwohl's questionnaire and, therefore, eventually become part of all this distorted misinformation about tunnel vision and adrenaline. Do you see how it happens?

     And this to me is the real heart of the matter. The blind fad, acceptance, or craze to denigrate a natural defense system like adrenaline as an inhibiting negative to overcome. This idea has been used to sell training programs that oversimplify and dumb down curriculum. The history of sports, criminal justice, and war has proven without question that adrenaline is a positive source for the success and survival of mankind.

     Next, I find it irritating that so many people, many calling themselves training professionals in police, fire, and the military, are so ready and willing to regurgitate, without any question, the biased or ignorant conclusions of these misguided sources and agenda-based training programs. This blind acceptance, this steamroll, is a syndrome all unto itself and one I wish would indeed take one giant step to the right and flat ... disappear.


A review and additional by Arthur Chenevey (  (always interesting to check in with him.

Mr Hochheim:

I enjoyed your article addressing some interesting facts and many opinions about the kinds of visual distortion which can occur with people under a high risk/dangerous scenario.
You are correct in presenting a more specific relationship occurring when a perceived threat, real or imagined, is presented, and how easy it is for what is actually going on at the neurophysiological level, to become grossly misrepresented by academics and first time survivors.
What is actually happening with the individual under dire duress of a life-threatening mechanism is a battle between neurological systems competing for dominance. The Limbic and Brian Stem systems are the first to gather and perceive the threat. The more these two systems are allowed to over-ride the Prefrontal Lobe from engaging its executive functioning, the more these two more primitive systems rule the roost.
Adrenaline has nothing to do with the focus, nor are the chemicals released, responsible for what the human does in an emergency. There is too much focus on this chemical dumb, which is erroneous.
If the Limbic/Brain Stem remain in control of the situation, it's hundreds of millions of years of evolution guiding our actions, just as you said: WE FOCUS SOLELY ON WHAT IS THREATENING. This is not tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is a bad label to use for intense focusing on the threat. Those who have been in killing combat know it does not look like we are looking down a tube. It is merely seeing what we have assessed as the real threat at that moment.
The idea of Stress Exposure Training, the only real successful training protocol we have, currently, at the professional level, that trains the Executive Function to over-ride and utilize the data the Brain Stem/Limbic system provides us, is a training protocol you will not see occurring at the commercial level.
This format for training, to do it correctly, it is too detailed, too expensive and not litigation proof. It is the system we use in the military's training of SOCOM operators, and with the Federal Law Enforcement's: FBI HRT operators and the Federal Border Patrol/Customs SRT operators. But then, the Federal government has the funds to conduct the data.
You can find a copy of the Federal Law Enforcement SET program on the internet from FLETC.
The truth is all commercial training falls horrifically short of training the Executive Function properly to over-ride and use what the Brain Stem/Limbic System perceives and assesses as dangerous threats. This is the key--the neurology that is taking place. The hormonal excretions are a response to that, and nothing more. What the chemicals do is supercharge the body for serious trauma--both in sucking it up and inflicting it--nothing more. High levels of cortisol do negatively impact the hippocampus, responsible for memory formation, though.
If the Executive Functioning remains in control, focus will be able to see more than merely a singular threat, regardless of the chemicals in the body.
The other truth is what you indirectly alluded to: Too much pseudo-science is being pawned off as real science for personal gains. Too many people at the professional levels, who have made little empires for themselves, continue to be considered savants in studying killing, or about what happens to people under duress when their data doesn't measure what they say it does. Using such data to train people for high risk environments gets more people killed, even as they feel confident in those bogus skills.

What is ironic, none of these experts have ever been in combat, so they possess no real experience. Then everything else they know or have learned has been through the academia (books), or in clinical work, which does not extrapolate well in real time. Like we like to say" "...surveying or interviewing others is not research, it's a talk show."

Keep writing articles along these lines, calling out misinterpretations and misdirections of data to become far more than what they really are.

A. Bodhi Chenevey

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