As most serious students of self-defense know, as do all police officers, professional soldiers and people who have been through some hair-raising and life-threatening situations, your body and your mind undergo massive stresses when in a time-is-life situation, or any high-stress situation for that matter. These effects can be varied, and some of them are almost unbelievable.
Two of the most well-known and most debated are tunnel vision and tunnel hearing, with the latter being more accurately called auditory exclusion. Along with tachypsychia, or altered perception of time, these odd phenomena typically occur in response to extreme stress, stress induced in any number of ways.
Tunnel vision is the narrowing of the visual field due to a loss of peripheral and even frontal vision in the eye. It is often described by those who experience it as akin to looking through a straw or tube. Auditory exclusion is a curious and poorly understood phenomenon that results in the selective or total loss of hearing to the exclusion of other senses, primarily vision.
Those who have experienced either or both already know, but if you haven’t you are probably imagining now that either or both can result in significant consequences and loss of performance in high-pressure situations.
We might not be able to totally prevent these bodily responses to stress but we can seek to understand them and train to manage them so we are better prepared when our number comes up. In this article, I will give you the scoop on both as well as information needed to minimize their effects.
Table of Contents
Tunnel Vision Explained
For those who have never experienced either of these two phenomena, it might be hard to conceptualize what they are like, and what you will be going through should they occur.
This is especially true considering that there is no surefire way to induce either of them except elevating stress to an extreme level (typically achievable only by intense and realistic training or a “live” event).
This might not be something you can simply “try on” for yourself!
Of these two effects tunnel vision is probably more common and is definitely better understood than its counterpart. In short, tunnel vision is pretty much exactly what the name says.
The person experiencing it will undergo a noticeable constriction of their visual field, described as anything from and between a dimming or loss of “edge” peripheral vision to a drastic constriction of the visual field entirely, down to only the centermost point, like looking through a tall or straw.
Neither of these outcomes are good, but it is far easier to manage the loss of a little peripheral vision then the loss of a significant percentage of your visual field.
It is somewhat related to target fixation commonly experienced by fighter pilots and race car drivers, as this loss of ability to bring in more information in the primary visual field can often lead to crashes and other mishaps.
Have you ever tried to build a complete visual picture of the circumstances and events around you while looking through a straw?
Yeah, it’s not easy, but it is easy to understand why it would contribute to panic, failed perception and bad decision making founded on inaccurate or incomplete data taken in visually.
Auditory Exclusion Explained
Auditory exclusion, which is the loss of part or complete perception of sound, is drastically more difficult to explain since even experts are not entirely sure what the mechanics or even the triggers of it are.
This is a highly contentious topic, and even people working in sectors whose practitioners statistically experience at the most might never have experienced it, or at least remember ever experiencing it. More on that later.
Auditory exclusion is particularly insidious because even when we are highly focused on something with another sense our “neglected” senses keep functioning in the background, even at a reduced capacity.
When auditory exclusion is in effect, some sound cues might go missing or the entire input from the ears may simply be ignored by the brain.
This manifests itself in missing important sound cues like a partner or bystander screaming your name or trying to get your attention, or other important clues like wailing sirens that signify the arrival of responding emergency personnel.
In more extreme but still common instances, people who have been involved in shootings both as shooter and as the target swear and affirm that they never heard the gunshots, and their ears did not ring after the event.
It sounds impossible, and the cause is not particularly well understood although we have mountains of anecdotal evidence that make the existence of this phenomenon hard to dispute.
We do know it is most typically related to tunnel vision in that it occurs predominantly in high-stress situations, scientists are still not certain if it is related only to perceived life-threatening stress and heartbeats per minute, or if there is an endocrine system component related to the release of adrenaline among other hormones.
What they do know is that auditory exclusion does not occur due to elevated heartbeat alone, unlike tunnel vision.
Truly anyone can imagine just how bad losing your hearing without knowing you have lost your hearing can be in a life-threatening situation!
So much of our decision-making process and reactions are informed by sounds, especially loud, sharp sounds and though you might think it is pretty cool that you could get a “free pass” from hearing damage in the event of gunfire going off around you sans ear protection, but the loss of situational awareness will be terrible, especially when combined with tunnel vision.
Causes: Psychological, Physiological or Both?
The specific biological or psychological causes of tunnel vision and auditory exclusion are not as important for the average person or average prepper as understanding when they’re likely to occur, what is likely to trigger them and how to manage them when they do occur.
You can do a quick search for either of these effects on any search engine and on the first two pages alone you will find studies, assertions and opinions on the matter that are all over the board from every kind of expert.
The intricacies of the hard science are no doubt very interesting for the right kind of reader but frankly I am betting that you come to this website for practical solutions to practical problems and that is what we are going to deliver even on such a mysterious topic as this.
Regarding both of these phenomena, we do know they are most likely to occur in times of extreme stress though they differ in that tunnel vision might be triggered strictly by physical stresses like an extremely elevated heartbeat (in excess of 160-170 BPM) whereas that is almost never the case with auditory exclusion.
Auditory exclusion is typically triggered as a result of life-threatening psychological stress, though some scientists credibly maintain responses to adrenaline released quickly enough as part of the startle response might play a significant part in both the initiation and the severity of auditory exclusion.
So we know that tunnel vision and auditory exclusion are typically triggered when you are in a high-stress state, with a racing heartbeat and experiencing an adrenaline dump. In what circumstances might you be experiencing all of those symptoms?
You got it: when your life is on the line, which just so happens to be precisely the kind of circumstances you need all of your senses working at their best.
Sorry, I didn’t make the biological rules. All we can do is live by them and try to mitigate them in case they work against us. In the next section we will talk about that.
Consequences of Tunnel Vision and Auditory Exclusion
Now we are coming back to the practical side of the house. You have no doubt read here and elsewhere how crucial it is that you maintain situational awareness – literally keep your head on a swivel – during an emergency, where life and limb may be on the line.
As I mentioned above, the very moment that you need to be at your sharpest, both sight & hearing, you are likely to be as hobbled as you will ever be thanks to the stress attendant to the event. This is an ugly thing to contemplate.
If we stopped to theorize how tunnel vision and auditory exclusion might affect us in a variety of circumstances we will no doubt realize continually worse and worse potential outcomes.
The loss of visual acuity needs little in the way of explanation since sight is so crucial to humans, as vision is our primary sense for orienting ourselves in the world and for the rapid and accurate gathering of information.
As our vision degrades, our perception and certainty about our own course of action degrades accordingly and at a geometric rate.
This means that in a self-defense situation where you are dealing with one attacker you might completely miss the one or more additional attackers that are closing in on your flanks using the classic “horns of the bull” envelopment maneuver.
During the mad scrum to save your own life you might see a figure closing in on the fracas dressed in dark clothing and holding what appears to be a gun. Reacting to that visual stimulus you pivot to engage them next with gunfire.
Turns out that was a bad play: you just prepared to shoot a uniformed cop closing in attempting to bust up the fray and, responding to the perceived threat, he shoots at you first.
Tunnel vision and auditory exclusion means you missed the obvious visual components of the officer’s uniform, and also the shiny badge on his chest. You also never heard his calls of “Police!” or his commands to “Drop the weapon!” Bad day…
Even in relatively mundane events that result in injuries by way of accident or misadventure Might result in tunnel vision or impaired hearing, to the detriment of yourself and the person you are potentially trying to help.
If someone is injured, perhaps badly, and is depending on you to render a swift and accurate medical intervention your inspection and assessment of the injury could be badly hampered by tunnel vision.
If they are able to respond to your questions or if someone else is trying to talk to you at the same time information that is crucial to a successful intervention could be lost thanks to auditory exclusion.
The short version is that there is no situation you might find yourself in that will not be made worse if you are experiencing television, auditory exclusion or both while trying to deal with the problem or extricate yourself from the circumstances.
But don’t think it is just a roll of the dice; though you cannot exercise total control over either of these factors it is possible through preparation and training to successfully manage them and reduce the negative effects that you would otherwise incur.
Training and Exposure for Mitigation
As I mentioned above (I’m saying again now in order to be perfectly clear) tunnel vision and auditory exclusion are not necessarily things you can train yourself out of doing. It isn’t a glitchy element or defective fundamental in the shooting of a pistol or rifle.
It isn’t that weird shuffle you do with your feet before launching a kick. It isn’t just a bad habit like cursing or fidgeting or saying “like” too much that you can break with enough conscious thought.
Both of these phenomena are ingrained into our physiology one way or another. That means that when conditions are right, and based on your own unique genetic makeup, you might always experience them.
But just like dealing with anything else in life and especially when it comes to dealing with high-pressure, high-stress situations exposure to those stressors and constant training to overcome the inherent drawbacks attendant with them goes a long way to keeping you operational, and effective when they happen for real.
Stated another way, if you make it a point to practice and train in whatever skillset you deem necessary but do it in a way where you are under simulated life-threatening stress physically and mentally you can start inducing both tunnel vision and potentially auditory exclusion, creating “lab” conditions that will give you an edge when either start kicking in for real.
Additionally, correct tactics, techniques and procedures will help to shore up any weakness induced by either. What might this look like? For instance, you can combat tunnel vision using a technique, or by incorporating various practice methods or even “hardware” training aids.
You might recall the post-shoot “scan and assess” being extremely popular a few years ago, to the point where it became a meme, and almost a sort of dance that people would do when training on the range.
Assessing your immediate surroundings is always important in a fight for your life, but people took it too far.
Anyway, you can start incorporating a conservative, deliberate and controlled simulated scan whenever you’re doing dry fire or live fire on the range to overcome the loss of peripheral vision and subsequent awareness that results in the aftermath of a lethal force encounter.
Another option is to use goggles that restrict your vision, specifically your edge or near peripheral vision in order to simulate tunnel vision “for real.”
Many scuba masks are perfect for this task as their typical shape often clutters your field of view and they are usually optically correct, allowing your central focal point to remain bright and crisp.
A field-expedient method can be done using your usual eye-pro and some chapstick to muddy up the lenses where they reside over your peripheral vision.
Auditory exclusion is more challenging to overcome since you cannot just listen harder when your ears have decided to clock out for the day.
There have been many combat situations where people involved suffered from auditory exclusion only to completely miss the shouted words and other exclamations directed to them by their fellows who were standing right next to them!
One might be tempted to chalk this up to temporary deafness resulting from explosions or gunfire, but there have been more than enough examples where neither was responsible for the loss of hearing.
But the way you can beat auditory exclusion is by relying once again on your eyes; you might actually have to turn your head and look for people who are trying to speak to you. If you are able to refocus and calm down you might be able to pick up what they are saying.
Sometimes a “switch” will happen where the auditory exclusion ends suddenly or gradually, and normal volume and perception levels return.
You should also keep in mind that other people in your group could be suffering from auditory exclusion and completely unable to hear you even when you are very close and shouting at them.
You can try to grab someone and make sure you have their full attention before you start relaying your message, pausing to make sure they are actually hearing what you are saying.
Generally speaking, training under realistic conditions and inoculating yourself against the effects of stress is one of the only ways to minimize the impact of tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. Combining this with a strict adherence to proper procedure can also give you a leg up.
Tunnel vision and tunnel hearing, the latter more properly being called auditory exclusion, are widely known by highly contested phenomena that will typically occur and occasions of extreme stress, which means you can expect to deal with them during any life-or-death situation that might befall you.
While it is impossible to rid yourself of these effects through proper stress inoculation, training and focus it is possible to overcome the worst of them. Don’t allow yourself to be surprised by either when lives are on the line; as with anything else, the time to prepare is now.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.