Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision is related to the temporary blindness concept we discussed earlier, but it is significantly different. Both involve not seeing something that is actually present. But the mechanism for this condition and how something is missed are different.

The retina in the human eye contains a great many rods and cones. Cones provide very precise imagery with lots of detail and full color. Rods provide less detail and produce images in shades of gray. They are great for detecting movement and form the basis of our peripheral vision. Not surprisingly, cones are located near the center of the retina while rods surround the cones. To provide some perspective, there are about 120 million rods and about 6 million cones in the human eye.

In Tunnel Vision the brain blocks out or ignores the inputs coming from the rods in the eyes. Vision is centered on the more detailed information produced by the cones. The cones are designed to pick up information directly ahead. They are not designed to produce peripheral imagery information. As a result the brain does not notice anything outside of the central part of the visual plane.

People with eye diseases or damage that limits the visual inputs from the rods in the eyes may experience permanent tunnel vision. People who are looking through a pair of binoculars may experience temporary tunnel vision while employing these devices.

Stress and Impaired Senses

In a conflict, tunnel vision can occur for brief moments when a person is intently focused on something. This may only last a second or less, but it provides the person with increased visual clarity in the area in which they are focused. But it also gives them decreased visual awareness everywhere else.

The degree to which tunnel vision occurs is directly related to the amount of stress a person feels. As stress levels increase, the tendency toward, and the extent of the tunnel vision event increases. You are more likely to experience tunnel vision, and you are more likely to have very focused tunnel vision if you are experiencing high levels of stress (as you might in a gunfight, for example).

There is some evidence that high levels of stress not only impact the visual system, but also the auditory system. If your vision narrows, then your auditory sensitivity also declines. It may decline to the extent that you completely ignore auditory inputs altogether. This is referred to as auditory exclusion and may explain why police officers engaged in a gun battle often cannot recall how many shots were actually fired. The did not hear more than the first shot or two as their vision focused on the person firing shots at them.

Interestingly, studies have also found that if you focus your hearing on only one thing then your visual perceptions decline. If you have headphones on and are intently listening to the lyrics of a song your visual field of vision may become more narrowed. The same thing may occur if you are straining to hear the conversation of two other people in another room or in a crowded restaurant.

This raises an interesting area of consideration. Does this type of exclusion occur with other senses as well? Does the sense of touch become diminished? What about the sense of smell? I do not have specific answers to these questions, but other evidence suggests this could occur. But I wouldn’t count on it either occurring or being of much practical use. What we can count on is that tunnel vision can occur under the correct circumstances and that can impact the outcome of a conflict.

The Worm Revisited

I have previously discussed an exercise I call “the worm” that I do with classes to demonstrate this condition. I have someone aggressively punch or grab me. When they initiate their movement I place a single raised finger (no not that finger) directly in front of their face, perhaps two feet ahead of them. I usually move the finger in the person’s direction of travel so it remains at a fixed distance from their face. For the person attacking me all forward momentum stops and all of the focus from their intended attack melts away. Their brain is immediately transfixed by this strange apparition that has suddenly appeared before them. They also do not notice my opposite hand streaking toward their head just above their outstretched arm.

Well of course I don’t hit them. But this clearly demonstrates how this can happen to someone with even significant training. It also suggests two other things. Firstly, you may be able to distract someone using a similar focus-distraction as you concurrently work to gain control of the opponent from an entirely different direction that would normally be within the persons realm of peripheral vision. This is something you may wish to periodically practice with others (they’ll never fall for the same trick twice in a row so you’ll want to be creative) to determine the best way to use these tactics.

Secondly, it never pays to be overly focused on anything in a conflict. You want to have the widest field of view (and hearing) possible and to limit the time you are intently concentrated on any single task or endeavor. You want to always be focused on the future and never the present or the past. If you watch anything specific for too long then you do so at your own peril.

Avoiding Tunnel Vision

Tunnel vision is something you may wish to use against an opponent but it is definitely something you will wish to limit utilizing yourself in a conflict situation. But how do you avoid what is an instinctive reaction and an unavoidable natural process?

You can’t avoid it entirely. It is a process that occurs without conscious thought so it can be difficult to intentionally avoid. But there are ways you can work to limit both the likelihood and effects of tunnel vision.

The first is to limit the stress you feel. Stress can be a key element in triggering tunnel vision. While it is not the only circumstance in which tunnel vision can occur, stress can be a major contributing factor in involuntary tunnel vision. But you can learn to deal with stress by putting yourself in stressful situations. That is a large part of the reasoning behind our focus on sparring in this belt curriculum. If you repetitively place yourself in a stressful environment such as that found in sparring activities then you will become more accustomed to the stress and will begin to feel more comfortable in that situation. This serves to ultimately reduce the stress you feel, which in turn can limit the automatic tunnel vision that comes with stress.

A second approach is to focus deliberately on using peripheral vision during a conflict. Intentionally decide to maintain the widest field of vision so that you see as much as possible and limit the naturally inclination to utilize tunnel vision when you see that fist headed in your direction. This is again a learned skill that can be augmented greatly via sparring activities. This doesn’t always work since we are dealing with a very natural and innate process that is impossible to mentally control, but by keeping a wider visual plane you are less likely to focus on a single element in your field of vision and are therefore less likely to fall into tunnel vision.

When you do find yourself using tunnel vision then you should immediately return to using a wider field of view. This can be a constantly recurring process in a conflict. You may find you are using tunnel vision and decide to return to using a wide field of view. A few moments later you may find you are using tunnel vision again. So the process is likely to repeat itself quite often. You learn through experience when you are using tunnel vision and how to subsequently focus more broadly.

Tunnel Vision is Beneficial

Tunnel vision is not a terrible malady inflicted on humankind. It is an adaptive system meant to ensure our survival. When threatened we naturally focus on the immediate threat to the exclusion of nearly everything else. It is a purely instinctual response that is usually quite beneficial.

Even in a physical conflict you will find tunnel vision quite useful. It allows you to carefully pick a target area or to focus intently on a specific manipulation or controlling action. These actions can be difficult to accomplish solely through peripheral vision. You will want to purposefully use tunnel vision even in a conflict.

The problem is that tunnel vision can quickly become habit forming. Once tunnel vision is used you may find yourself remaining in this form of vision for an extended period of time – which can be detrimental. So learn to use tunnel vision for a specific purpose and then quickly adopt a wider field of vision. This often requires conscious effort to both recognize the condition and force the utilization of a different visual method.

This is all a learning process. Stress training is quite helpful, but so is the mental training that comes from working on specific skills with others. When learning or practicing new or complex skills you will often use tunnel vision to focus on various aspects of these skills. This training can be augmented if you and your training partner(s) pay attention to when another person is clearly using tunnel vision too frequently. A gentle tap on the side of the head can serve as a reminder that too much time has been spent using this more restrictive form of visual data gathering.

As we alluded to earlier tunnel vision is also beneficial when you can get your opponent to rely upon it exclusively. Keep things moving in front of the opponent’s face so he or she feels a constant need to focus on these movements. Ensure these movements not only occur laterally (left and right), but also move toward and away from the opponent’s face. This increases the opponent’s attention on these movements. Once you are convinced the opponent is focused intently on these movements then Kapow!  Or perhaps that is when you have created the perfect opportunity to escape. Of course, you should not strike someone unnecessarily.


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