What do yoga teachers and researchers studying use-of-force situations have in common?

If you are a regular reader of this column, you have often heard me talk about tunnel vision and diminished hearing as two of the physical consequences that commonly, though not universally, affect people under the stress of a lethal attack.

Tunnel vision does not mean that your visual field shrinks to a small area, as if you were looking out of a tunnel. You might think you are seeing everything normally, but because you are focussed completely on the lethal threat in front of you, you won’t notice other things that would normally catch your visual attention, such as someone moving up beside you.

Tunnel vision happens because of changes that happen in the body, brain, and mind when you perceive a serious threat to your continued existence. Those changes help you to focus on the threat, which increases your chances of living through the experience, but at the expense of other visual input that might be distracting or unimportant.

In a house-clearing scenario at the National Tactical Invitational match a few years ago, I completely missed seeing a gun “in plain sight” on a table, because I was looking for someone who might be hiding in the room. Since the surface of the table wasn’t a possible hiding place, tunnel vision prevented me from perceiving what I normally would have seen easily.

Tunnel vision affects police in a wide variety of ways during shootouts, fights, high speed chases or similar activities. Some officers are so focused on their attacker’s face (or their own gun sights) that they don’t see them drop their gun.

Tunnel vision affects 82% of officers in the midst of critical incidents, according to Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a researcher who has studied thsee events.

Similarly, tunnel hearing, sometimes called auditory exclusion or diminished hearing, happens to about 88% of people under extreme stress. You will be able to hear anything your attacker is saying to you, but you might not hear anyone else, even if they are very close and are yelling very loudly. So, it is quite common for an officer not to hear commands that another officer is shouting, or something a bystander is shouting.

Like most police officers, I was taught these effects as part of a long list of possible physical/perceptive consequences of stress. They were essentially unrelated. I was taught that in any bad situation, one or the other, or both, or neither might happen to anyone.

But research continues, and new studies have produced some new insights into what goes on in our bodies and minds when someone is trying to kill us. Dr. Bill Lewiniski, director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University in a recent issue of his Force Science News, summarizes a new, better, more useful description of what happens.

Lewinsky reports that tunnel vision and tunnel hearing are mutually exclusive. “If an officer in a high stress situation is strongly visually focused on something and experiencing ‘tunnel vision’ they cannot simultaneously be experiencing ‘tunnel hearing’.” Of course, they might experience tunnel vision at one point during an encounter, and then tunnel hearing at another time during the same incident. This switching back and forth might happen several times a second, or it might be much slower.

People are not consciously aware of what they are experiencing. I thought I was seeing the whole room when I searched it; only later was it proved to me that tunnel vision prevented me from seeing the gun. It is natural, indeed it is necessary, for the mind to fill in blanks left by perception. So, an officer will think that s/he has seen and heard everything that went on.

The normal, unstressed state of perception is what Lewinsky calls “soft focus.” All your senses can be in soft focus at the same time, but when your attention is demanded by one sensory system, such as your eyes, it takes over, and you cannot simultaneously process other information from that sense, or from another sense.

Lewinski goes on, “Another fascinating but little known fact is that thoughts can have the same tunneling effect as events. An officer who is psychologically recoiling when confronted with an immediate and direct threat to their life could be ‘attentionally tunneling’ into their own thoughts and can be blind to anything that is going on outside of their own head. Or, an officer who is desperately trying to figure out how to unjam their gun in the middle of a close gunfight is also attentionally tunneled, except it is to solving a problem, instead of the movement or action of the threat that may be simultaneously occurring. They are still incapable of seeing what they are not focused on at that moment.”

Some officers report that they were able to see the assailant’s gun, but they were not able to feel their own gun in their own hand. The visual focus on the threat trumped the kinesthetic sense that usually gives information about one’s own body part, position, and contact with objects.

“The fundamental principle is that we need to select and focus our attention to whatever is important to us – including our own thoughts, and the higher the level of stress the greater is our need to focus to get important information”

If the stress level is low, we can multi-task across all our senses and many different thoughts. But when we focus on just one thing, the ability to process other inputs is lost, until we change our focus. The stronger the focus on just one thing, the more is lost from other inputs. At the point of extreme focus, all of our senses are picking up all the signals they normally do, but the brain filters out everything but the focus of attention. This is a completely automatic process; it cannot be consciously controlled.

Lewinski says, “This process of selecting some information and rejecting or being blind to others 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, not emotion. Emotions such as anger and fear may accompany the focus on an attacker, or even cause it, but they aren’t necessary for inattentional blindness to occur. Even ordinary, unemotional activities can produce it. (Ah ha! That’s why I don’t hear someone asking me a question when my head is buried in a really good book.)

Most people have had the experience of thinking about a hard problem or a highly emotional situation while driving home. You might have found yourself in the driveway without any clear memory of having driven part of the way home. That’s selective attention. Habitual actions can go on while most of our attention is elsewhere. This helps to explain why some folks say, after a critical incident, “I don’t remember drawing my gun, but it was suddenly in my hand.”

Many police don’t understand this effect, and you can be sure that most prosecutors, judges, and jurors don’t either. To them, it may seem incredible that someone didn’t remember an important part of a shooting, didn’t hear someone yelling at them, or said some things that were incompatible with the physical evidence. People who do these things are not lying. They are describing what happened as they experienced it under extreme attitudinal focus, or as their mind filled in blanks they weren’t even conscious of. Fortunately, there are experts like Lewinski who can help to explain why the shooter is credible.

For all of us who go armed, it is time to start paying attention to the many aspects of inattentional blindness that affect us in every day life. Instead of thinking of tunnel vision and tunnel hearing as independent effects that happen only under the most extreme circumstances, notice how they are a parts of a single phenomenon that is a natural part of our reaction to the world around us, or to our own thoughts.

Yoga teachers say that awareness is extremely powerful. Doing a yoga practice while focusing internally is completely different (and more effective) than doing the same physical moves while focusing externally on something in the past or future. Attention is powerful, in yoga or in a gunfight. Sometimes attention can be controlled and focussed consciously, other times it is forced on us, or happens at an unconscious level. In either case, being aware of its power helps us to understand what we, and other people, are experiencing.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns magazine, Mar-Apr, 2007, Copyright © 2007, Lyn Bates