Keys to staying vigilant without being paranoid

The science of situational awareness: A human being's control of attention and concentration is so important that the brain has an entire neural network devoted to it

The purpose of this discussion is not to second-guess the actions of the four Lakewood, Wash. officers who were ambushed this week or to “blame the victims” of Maurice Clemmons’ evil rampage against police. I wasn’t there and neither were you. But in my classes, I teach that 20/20 hindsight = 20/20 insight = 20/20 foresight. By constructively analyzing a situation that went wrong, we come to understand what could have been done better — and here’s the key — we learn what to do next time (and there will be a next time), so that a similar future situation has a far better outcome.

The recent ambush murders of four Lakewood, Washington police officers while working on their laptop computers in a Tacoma coffee shop have forced every law enforcement officer to ask: “Could that have been me? Could I be caught by surprise like that and lose my life? Do I now have to be on high alert every moment of my shift in order to avoid getting killed?”

Many officers make the mistake of thinking that being safely vigilant means only two choices:

• Red alert paranoia
• Caught-by-surprise-zone-out

Being aware of your surroundings is a necessary survival skill but it’s not an “on-off” switch — in the best cases this is almost always a gradation, a continuum. You can learn to control your attention, to make it flexible, effective, and responsive to the moment-to-moment needs of your patrol situation. That way, you don’t have to maintain white-knuckled concentration to keep safe. Instead, your well-trained attention control system will act like a mental firewall, automatically scanning the environment so that it will be hard to catch you off guard. Here’s how it works.

The Nature and Purpose of Attention
You already know something about attention. For example, an overly narrow attentional focus (over-focusing on details while losing sight of the big picture) is often characterized as tunnel vision, or “missing the forest for the trees.” Conversely, trying to get a little of everything all at once may result in mental blurred vision. Here, the beam of attention is too broad, too diffuse, too scattered to yield any useful information on how to respond. In critical situations, one of the first mental faculties to be affected is the ability to control one’s attention as required.

Attention is what allows you to focus on a situation or task so that sensory input is processed in a meaningful pattern. Concentration is the ability to consciously and purposefully direct and maintain your attention to a particular object or activity over time. By concentrating, you make a point to avoid distractions that could disrupt your performance. At the same time, it is important to be able to switch attention to another subject when necessary, and even maintain different types, levels, and targets of attention and concentration as needed at any given time. A third term, awareness, refers to the sum total of knowledge about your surroundings afforded by attention, concentration, and your sensory-perceptual faculties.

Effortful concentration, especially if prolonged, takes a great deal of mental energy and can be fatiguing. Accordingly, it is important to be able to match the often-changing demands of a critical situation with the precise level and direction of attention and concentration needed on a moment-to-moment basis. Some officers and emergency personnel do this automatically and instinctively but for most, like any other critical skill it requires a degree of training and practice.

In fact, control of attention and concentration is so important that the brain has an entire neural network devoted to it, called the reticular activating system or RAS. This system consists of a complex pattern of neurons and fibers that connect the basic sensory modalities (vision, hearing, touch, pain, smell, taste, temperature, balance, and others) with the arousal, emotional, motivational, and thinking centers of the brain. In this way, what we experience through our senses is quickly and automatically coordinated with the proper response to that situation. Individuals who have suffered damage to the RAS may have eyes and ears that work fine, but the perceptions they take in have no significance to them; they are essentially unresponsive, even though the primary sensory pathways are intact. Thus, they may appear unaware of — or uninvolved with — their surroundings. Although they are not sleeping or in a coma, they don’t respond because the sensory information that enters the nervous system just “doesn’t register.”

The closest any of us gets to this state in normal life is when we fail to hear someone right next to us talking in our ear because we’re so focused on another person’s conversation, riveted to a TV show, or internally preoccupied with a troubling thought.

An observer might say we’re “distracted” or that our “mind is elsewhere.” In fact, it may take an unexpected stimulus, such as a jabbing finger or a loud shout to refocus our attention to the person trying to capture it. The neuropsychological bottom line is that we normally have a finite ability to focus attention on more than a few things at a time, whether on ourselves or in the environment. The key is to train the RAS and associated brain structures to do this more efficiently and controllably.

Like any human ability — mental or physical — some people may possess more of an innate talent for attentional control than others. But, like most abilities, attentional control is a skill that can be learned, indeed it must be learned, for effective response in critical situations to take place because, in an emergency, a lapse of attention can lead to costly mistakes and tragic outcomes. “I wasn’t paying attention,” “I missed the cue,” “I wasn’t thinking,” “I tunneled out,” “I dropped the ball,” “I was too slow on the uptake,” “I was somewhere else,” “It got past me,” are all phrases officers have used to describe lapses or disruptions of attention during critical calls.

Dimensions of Attention
A number of authorities and researchers have conceptualized the faculty of attention as lying along two interrelated dimensions: breadth of focus and direction of focus.

Breadth of Focus. This describes how narrow or wide the beam of attention is. When first encountering an unknown scene, officers typically don’t want to overlook something important, so they set their attentional scanner relatively wide to take in as much information as possible, much like using the wide angle lens setting of a surveillance camera. But if something critical is identified, then the focus narrows, like looking through a rifle sight to concentrate on the target and eliminate distractions. Here, all of your attention is riveted to the task at hand, at the calculated expense of losing information at the perceptual periphery. In other words, you’re deliberately inducing tunnel vision, because that’s what’s needed for the specific task of acquiring a target and hitting it, either with a bullet or a camera click.

Ideal attention management entails the ability to focus on elements or cues that are relevant to performance while ignoring nonessential features. In fact, research in sports psychology has shown that the ability to manage attention in this fashion is one of the features distinguishing successful athletes from less successful players. Many situations require you to flexibly shift concentration from broad to narrow and back again, or even to maintain a kind of divided consciousness, focusing on a particular subject of interest while simultaneously keeping a portion of the attentional beam in a scanning mode so as not to overlook other existing or emerging threats. Examples include checking a license number on your vehicle computer during a traffic stop, while keeping a mental eye out for events on the road around you.

Direction of Focus. This is another dimension of attention, which can be internal or external. External focus is the most obvious, as it is important to be able to focus on the events taking place around you during a critical situation. But it may be just as important to focus internally on what is taking place mentally and physically within your own mind and body during the critical incident. This includes your own arousal level, balance, energy reserves, fear and anxiety, presence or threat of injury, or basic requirements like the need for air or taking a bathroom break. Again, flexibility is the key, and during a critical incident, attention should monitor back and forth between internal and external, coordinating thought, feeling, and arousal with optimum task performance.

Training Attention
You’ve probably heard that if a person is blind, his or her other senses become much sharper. Actually, that’s not quite true. What the blind person has learned to do is to make maximum use of his or her other senses in a way most of us don’t have to. But each of us has the capacity to sharpen all of our senses, and we don’t have to lose an eye or ear to do it. As noted earlier, controlling the sharpness and power of your senses has a lot to do with learning to control your brain’s RAS-attentional system.

Being able to flexibly control attention requires that you master three fundamental dimensions of attention and concentration: (1) intensity = being able to concentrate hard enough; (2) duration = being able to concentrate long enough; and (3) flexibility = being able to flexibly shift concentration when necessary.

Mastering these three dimensions involves practicing what emergency services trainer Lew Asken calls the attention-fixation-generalization technique, which has also recently been described by law enforcement trainer Wes Doss, and which I have adapted for use in my law enforcement courses and training seminars.

For this technique, think of attention as a type of flashlight beam with a constant wattage but with a variable aperture that allows you to broaden the beam to a soft glow that dimly but fully illuminates the whole room, or narrow it down to a single, thin, bright shaft of light that creates a tiny but blazing spot on the wall. Another analogy is to an adjustable garden hose nozzle that allows you to cover a wide swath of lawn with a broad, misty spray or zero in on a single shrub with a fast, concentrated water jet. Beam or stream — pick whatever image best helps you grasp the concept and master the methodology.

To begin training in this technique, first assume a relatively comfortable position, relatively free of distractions. Eventually, you should be able to evoke and utilize this technique even under conditions of extreme stress and chaos but, at first, practice it in a relatively quiet setting until you achieve some degree of mastery.

Pick an object in the room — a picture, a lamp, a cup, even a spot on the wall — and visually focus your attention on it as intently and as long as possible. Try to keep all of your attention on this object, tuning out any other stimuli in the room. Hold that focus for as long as possible. Then, voluntarily shift your attention away from the object to another object in the room. Now make that your focus of attention. Try this with a few other objects around the room.

Now, try it with sounds. Focus on a lawnmower in a neighbor’s yard, a TV character mumbling in the next room, or the hum of the fridge. Pick one sound source and hone in on it. Now, switch to another sound, and then another, as you did with the visual objects. Keep doing this until it starts to feel natural.

Now, go back and forth between visual and auditory stimuli. To make it interesting, try it with different objects (switch from a visual image of the couch to the sound of the fridge) or with the same object (swing your attention back and forth from the TV picture to the sound). Remember to take your time initially and not try to rush things: keep practicing and you’ll get it.

Now, broaden the beam. Scan the entire room and become aware of as many sources of stimuli as possible: the objects in the room, their shapes, colors, textures, and proximity to one another, the drone of the air conditioner or people talking, any street noise coming in from outside, any smells or temperature changes, the level of illumination in different parts of the room, the pressure of the seat on your legs and rear end, the feel of your clothes on your skin.

Pay attention to internal sources of physical and mental stimulation as well: Are you hot or cold, hungry or thirsty? Are you comfortable in your seat? Do you have to use the bathroom? Tired or rested, calm or nervous, happy or sad, interested or bored?

You may find it overwhelming at first to try to attend to so many features of your internal and/or external environments at once. You’ll probably lose your focus on one thing as you try to concentrate on another, like trying to follow several simultaneous conversations around the dinner table. As the attentional beam gets stretched more and more broadly, you may find it thinning out to the point that you’re not really paying attention to anything in particular — the mental flashlight flickers, the garden hose sputters.

Don’t worry. This scanning ability will get better with practice, and will improve even further as you learn to also control the intensity of the scanning beam. For now, however, pull in the beam—width a little bit to the point where you’re able to focus on as many things as possible, while keeping those percepts reasonably within your span of attention.

Next, keep maintaining multiple foci of attention but start varying the intensity and beam-width of each. Now, you’ll actually have several beams of attention branching out simultaneously. Some will be narrowly and intensely focused on one feature of the environment, such as a person talking to you or something happening on your computer screen. Others beams will be more broadly scanning the environment, taking in such things as the number of people in the room, the layout of the furniture, points of access and exit, and so on.

In reality, you already do this in your daily life. Think about having a conversation with a passenger while driving: you’re usually so tuned in to what you’re gabbing about with the other person that you’re virtually unconscious of the driving process itself — you only pay special attention to the road if some unexpected event occurs, like the car in front of you suddenly braking or the thump of a pothole. While this kind of divided consciousness while driving could prove dangerous, it’s impressive how often accidents don’t happen because for most of us, the driving process is such a well-practiced, practically over-learned skill, that we can allocate our RAS resources elsewhere.

Sometimes we even abuse this ability by doing overly distracting things like texting and eating while driving, but that’s another subject.

Application of Attentional Control
Ideally, in a real-life police emergency, your intense, narrow attentional beam might be focused on a criminal making a threatening gesture toward you, with other beams more broadly and less intently scanning important peripheral and internal features of the environment: being alert for sounds of footsteps behind you, avenues of escape around the room, your own heartbeat and respiration rate, the smell of gunpowder or drug residue, and so on. It is in just these kinds of critical situations that the ability to flexibly allocate attention in many directions, in response to changing circumstances, might save your life.

Another practical example involves officer-involved shootings, in which officers typically describe a sense of tunnel-vision during the episode. In retrospect, many report that they were so focused on the suspect’s gun or their own actions that they completely tuned out anything else that was going on; as a consequence, they have difficulty remembering what transpired during the event. This is probably because all the environmental stimuli that were shut out of the brain’s perceptual channels by an over-focused RAS during the emergency never got the chance to be recorded accurately by the brain’s memory system: it never got inputted, so it can’t be retrieved.

In my law enforcement courses and seminars, I ask each officer to recount a personal critical incident from his or her own career and describe the thoughts, feelings, and actions that accompanied it. Then we run through some practice sessions of the attention-fixation-generalization technique described above. After that, I ask each officer to recreate the original incident in his or her own mind and imagine how it might have been different if they had used the technique they just learned. Finally, I encourage the officers to practice the technique in their daily patrol activities until it becomes natural and automatic, so they’ll be ready to employ it in the event of an emergency.

As always, the goal of learning any skill is for it to become so ingrained and natural that you’re hardly aware that you’re using it. This can only be achieved through practice and application in as wide a variety of settings as possible. As you get good at it, you’ll find that you needn’t be on red alert during every moment of your shift, because that would be impossibly stressful and exhausting. Instead, it begins to feel so natural that you’re hardly aware of doing it at all, just like with most routine driving episodes.

So let’s put ourselves into the scenario in Washington (recall the caveat in the opening paragraph of this column: the purpose of this discussion is not to second-guess their actions, but to learn from them).

We are a in a group of officers are sitting around a table working on our laptop computers, drinking coffee, and intermittently engaged in conversation. Our primary beams of attention will be focused on the computer screen (primarily visual) on each other’s dialogue (visual and auditory), as well as secondarily on the coffee (taste and smell) and other sensations. But that’s the time to keep a separate, more diffuse, but far broader span of attention covering the room and environment around us. This will act as a “sixth sense” to warn of danger approaching in a car or entering the door on foot. This attention beam would be both auditory (suspicious sounds) and visual (unusual sights or body movements by others), and might involve other senses as well (such as smell of smoke at the beginning of a fire).

The point is, the broad attentional beam acts as an automatic early warning system that, once mastered through practice and experience, takes very little effort to implement and monitor. This frees up most of your “mental disk space” to concentrate on the task at hand while still keeping track of what’s going on around you. Note that the attentional beam, or several simultaneous beams, will usually be in a continual state of flux during your shift: sometimes a wide, diffuse attentional net, other times more focused on a potential threat. Overall, this is far less stressful and exhausting than trying to maintain a state of constant high alert.

All this isn’t as metaphysical as it sounds: this is just how the brain’s RAS operates, and you probably do this to some extent already during various aspects of your patrol activities. The key is to practice this and other cognitive control techniques until they become ingrained and automatic – just like any other good tactical training – so that safety awareness becomes an instinct, but an instinct you can always expand and improve.

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