Virginia Coalition of Police
and Deputy Sheriffs
TUNNEL VISION AND TUNNEL HEARING - TIME TO
How can an officer in a gunfight be looking at their sights and not see and
respond instantly to a change in a subject's behavior? Why couldn't the officer
see the other person? He has to be lying when he said he didn't see the person
drop the gun! Why can't he tell us how many shots his partner fired? Didn't he
hear the commands that were shouted at him?
These are common remarks regarding an officer's behavior and memory that can
arise from anyone judging an officer's behavior in a gunfight.
Law Enforcement has used the terms "tunnel vision" and "tunnel hearing"
to explain how law enforcement officers process information under high stress
conditions - from gunfights and high speed pursuits to tough physical
encounters. These terms are used to explain why officers were able to clearly
explain some elements of the encounter while literally being blind to other
apparently obvious elements. Although these terms have occasionally raised the
criticism of apologizing for ineptness or deceit by the officer, most law
enforcement investigators, officials, the court system and civilians are aware
of what these terms mean and tend to give them some credibility.
LITTLE KNOWN FACTS:
What is generally unknown and needs to be understood -- is how and why these
phenomenon work, how common they are, and what a huge body of psychological
research and experience under-girds them. For instance officers and
investigators appear not to know that tunnel vision and tunnel hearing can be
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".
They can of course have a "soft focus" across all the senses or even within the
same sense, for example visually scanning a scene, but once the officer's
attention is strongly directed to one event in a sensory system, they cannot
simultaneously process information either in the same sensory system or in
another sensory system. They may experience them in sequence, for instance shift
from "tunnel vision" to "tunnel hearing" and then back again to "tunnel vision",
but they can't simultaneously do both.
Officers may believe they can do both because they may fill in the blanks about
what has occurred. Given time, and based on the context and change in what the
officer perceives, they link events and "fill in the blanks" and thus create a
memory for events rather than "recording" an actual memory of the
event. For instance, if something occurred in the visual sense while
the officer's attention was diverted for even a fraction of a second, the
officer would be incapable of recalling what happened during that period and may
not even believe something occurred while their attention was distracted,
despite clear and factual forensic evidence to the opposite.
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.
Despite the fact that law enforcement has chiefly chosen to use these terms in
reference to high stress encounters, and some individuals erroneously believe
that high levels of anger and/or fear are necessary for "tunnel vision" and
"tunnel hearing" to occur, the reality is that all human beings are experiencing
these phenomenon at some level and to some degree all of the time. Anger and
fear of course will generate these phenomena but attentional tunneling actually
occurs at any emotional level. All that is necessary is for the individual to
begin to concentrate on something and the phenomenon starts to appear. "Inattentional
blindness" is the name for the process of rejecting information coming into a
sensory system because of a focus on something that is more important at that
particular point in time.
Both "tunnel vision and hearing" are part of how human beings are able to pay
attention in a world that bombards us with stimuli and our own mind preoccupies
us with our own thoughts. Without an ability to concentrate and focus we would
be flooded with information and be functioning as if we had an attention deficit
disorder. 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
Also the greater is the need to exclude the information that is not important.
Functionally, as long as the stress level is low enough, we can have a "soft"
focus across many senses and or thoughts. This is how we can multi-task,
particularly with routine non-stressful activities. Once we begin to target on
something we quickly loose the ability to acquire and process anything other
than what we are focused on, until we change our focus. This focus does not have
to include any emotional component. The tennis player, the chess player or the
student focusing on completing an assignment all can demonstrate amazing powers
of concentration that include significant "tunnel vision" and "tunnel hearing"
and a significant blindness to anything other than that on which they are
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?
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 their 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 they truly are
focused - they would not be able to inform us about anything else going on in
the playing field, including the feeling of the bat in their own hand. This is
usually not important for them and no one is concerned about this but when the
same phenomenon occurs to an officer in a gunfight it becomes of major
significance. Those concerned with evaluating an officer's performance had
better understand how and why this process occurs if they are going to
objectively judge that officer.
TUNNEL VISION -THE BRAIN AT WORK
The process of selection and attention has always been understood by
psychologists to be a cognitive or brain process issue and not a sensory
process. For instance, science tells us the eye appears to be continually
reporting all the sensations to the brain, the brain selects from the sense what
it needs and actively rejects or suppresses the rest of the information (leading
to the impression of tunneling in that particular sense). But the brain is at
work doing this - not the eye. Therefore the name "tunnel vision" is very
descriptive, but misleading. Psychologists refer to this "focus" as "selective
attention". The process of rejecting information is termed "inattentional
blindness". Psychologist have been able to demonstrate in the lab, under
non-stress conditions, that you can be looking directly at something and
literally be blind to it if you are not attentionally focused on it.
The reader will note that "selective attention" does not make any reference to
any specific sense such as vision or hearing and the reason is that attention
can be directed to anywhere in the person's thoughts, body or to any sense.
Under intense focus, we are able to report on selected information in one sense
or a thought but are "blind" to the information from other senses or thoughts.
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.
The reader may note that their attention to this article has inattentionally
blinded them to the feeling of their clothes on their body or the chair they are
sitting on. Even focusing on a thought in your head has a significant impairing
effect on processing sensory information.
In Force Science News #54, in which we reported on the limitations of
emotionally charged cell phone conversations, we noted that Dr. Paul Atchley and
other researchers found that when drivers were focused on just emotional words
spoken into their cell phones they were so oblivious to information outside
their head and their vehicle that they couldn't tell the difference between a
dumpster by the side of the road or a child starting to run out in front of
The reader may be aware of times when they were driving home, intently focused
on some deep personal issue, and were surprised to arrive at home unaware of
seeing or remembering any turn they made or light they stopped at. This could
only occur with a practiced behavior on a very familiar course of travel but it
can and does occur under conditions of intense concentration, fatigue.
This brain process of focusing or "tunneling" (selective attention and
inattentional blindness) holds true for all humans, under most conditions, but
especially for officers engaged in emotionally intense situations, such as
pursuit driving, fighting, or shooting.
TUNNELING HAS BREADTH AND DEPTH:
A further fact is that "attention" can contain elements of both breadth and
depth and the focus could be on points both inside and outside the person.
"Selective attention" when directed outside the person could be directed to any
location in physical space. For example, a person in a forest could select to
visually focus in general on the forest, any tree in the forest, near or far,
left or right. A focus or attention could also be internal and so the person
could then focus internally and narrowly on their feeling of being in the
forest. They could also focus internally and broadly on the sense of movement
through the forest.
Understanding and being able to explain officer performance in a high stress
encounter needs a knowledge base of much more than just "tunnel vision" and
"tunnel hearing." We really to get much more sophisticated in our understanding
of human performance and use of that information so that training, investigation
and explanations to the public can all be improved.
FSRC has just completed a groundbreaking study involving the London Metropolitan
Police that is focused on an attempt to apply this understanding of attention,
perception and memory to a law enforcement situation.
Results are expected to be available to be reported to London Metropolitan
Police in early 2007.
For Further Information:
Neideffer has developed a quadrant of attention, that with limitations, helps to
further explain "attentional tunneling." Neideffer, is reported on Schmidt and
Wrisberg's, Motor Learning and Control, published by Human Kinetics.
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