Fighting Tunnel Vision—Refocusing During an Emergency

It was the perfect kind of day that only the Arizona desert can produce: not a cloud in a dark-blue sky, temperatures in the 90s, humidity in the teens, the smell of cactus blooms in the air. I was on my motorcycle at the end of a two-hour ride from Phoenix to my home in Tucson. Less than a mile from my apartment, a car made a right turn directly in front of me—the classic prelude to an auto-motorcycle collision. Naturally, I slammed on both the front and rear brakes, and my eyes riveted on the exact spot on the passenger door that was promising to be my impact point. But then I did a very unnatural thing—I looked away from the car door toward its rear bumper. Although every fiber of my being was demanding that I stare at where I would hit, I looked to the left. The bike leaned in that direction, the car glided through its turn, and I slid past the rear bumper by inches.

Why did I spend so much time staring at something I was sure to hit without doing anything more than listening to my tires squeal? As it turns out, it’s for the same reason that skydivers stare at malfunctioning main canopies without doing much or keep their eyes fixed on objects they wish to avoid when landing. We are hardwired to stare at threatening things—it’s an automatic reaction to dangerous situations. It benefited our ancestors and was a good survival tactic in the jungles and savannahs where the human race spent most of its history, but it leaves something to be desired in the modern, high-speed, mechanized world in which we now live.

Signals From the Brain
Our brain does amazing things when we are confronted with danger. Exactly how the brain recognizes danger is unclear, but when it does, higher brain functions are left out of the loop. We don’t think in the normal sense; instead, a primitive survival system takes over. Stress hormones called glucocorticoids are dumped into the bloodstream. The brain instructs our liver, muscles and fat cells to convert into glucose all the nutrients they contain—our digestive system actually reverses itself, producing energy-rich glucose instead of storing it. Blood vessels throughout our body decrease in diameter, and our heart rate increases so that all those stress hormones and the high-energy glucose reach our brain and muscles in a fraction of a second. Brain functions become quicker, senses become sharper, physical strength is boosted, and reaction times decrease.

Something very interesting happens to our vision, as well. Our perception of colors and shapes becomes more active, and our ability to identify detail gets more acute because the cones and rods at the back of our eyes become more sensitive. At the same time, our visual cortex—the part of our brain that processes signals from our eyes—becomes extremely active in order to take advantage of this increased sensitivity. This is one of the reasons for the illusion of time slowing during stress. Details that might take us several seconds to notice in normal situations are perceived and memorized almost instantly. Time does not speed up or slow down, it just seems like it does because our senses suck up information at such an accelerated rate.

feature20118-11Photo by Ori Kuper

The Field of Vision
Most importantly for those of us engaged in high-speed recreation, our visual field becomes narrower. We actually lose a good portion of our peripheral vision. We become so fixated on what our brain has identified as a danger that we are no longer capable of seeing things to our right or left. That is why I was so fixated on the impact point on the side of the car and why it seemed so unnatural to look for a path to avoid collision.

The same thing happens to skydivers facing a dangerous situation in the air. In a freefall emergency, we often don’t realize how close we are to the ground because our peripheral vision narrows so much that we do not see the horizon engulfing us. That is why so many of our skydiving brethren fell to their deaths before the widespread use of AADs. They fought malfunctioning mains all the way to impact because they never realized how close they were to the ground.

This human tendency to visually fixate on dangerous objects combined with a narrowed field of vision also contributes to landing injuries. When we suddenly find ourselves landing off the drop zone or missing the venue on a demonstration jump, we tend to look at the dangerous things that can hurt us instead of the safe place where we want to land. Because we tend to steer where we look, we can easily end our jump on something hard or sharp, ensuring a trip to the hospital and a lengthy recovery before our next jump. This is why it is so important to consciously think about looking where we want to land: We tend to move toward where we look. We do the same thing with our cars, motorcycles and even as we walk.

Try this experiment: Get a long, narrow tube an inch or less in diameter and maybe a foot long. A plastic pipe or the tube from a roll of wax paper or aluminum foil works well. Cover one eye and look through the tube in such a way that you have no peripheral vision and can see only one small object at a time. As you look through the tube, pick an object to your left or right that fills your limited field of view. Keep looking at the object and try to walk past it in a straight line. You will need to turn your head and maybe your upper body in order to keep your eye on the object. Chances are you’ll walk in a slight curve toward the object. Without the aid of peripheral cues, most people tend to walk toward an object they are looking at, even if they concentrate on walking past it.

Overcoming Our Instincts
It is very hard to overcome these psychological and physiological reactions to dangerous events, because they have worked so well to ensure the survival of our species. Maintaining an intense and narrow visual focus on a lion spotted in the brush was a very good survival mechanism for a caveman. A very narrow field of vision eliminated distractions that may have caused our ancestors to lose concentration on running a spear through the heart of dangerous prey. Individuals with these traits had a higher chance of surviving encounters with wild animals, and their families and tribes had a higher chance of benefiting from the increased safety in the immediate environment, as well as the increased protein available to their diet. The ancient, human-like predecessors who did not have these attributes had a lower chance of survival both individually and collectively—and a lower chance of passing their genes onto modern humans.

So, it seems that we are stuck with genes that are not well suited to dealing with high-speed emergencies. What can we do about it? Luckily, we have a huge advantage: our brain and its ability to learn and remember.

For skydivers, this means adopting a plan to deal with emergencies and practicing that plan on a regular basis. For example, many first-jump courses teach students to react to a partial malfunction by pulling both steering toggles all the way down twice, then initiating emergency procedures by looking at the cutaway handle. Simply repeating that sequence of movements is enough to train the brain to do something other than stare at the source of the threat, which in this case is the malfunctioning canopy. However, you don’t have to wait around for Safety Day or a rainy day at the DZ to hang in a harness and practice. There is no reason why you can’t sit in your easy chair in front of the TV, look to the ceiling, imagine you see a malfunctioning parachute, go through the motions of pulling the steering toggles, and look to the right side of your chest and begin your emergency procedures.

feature20118-12Photo by Dan Bishop

Practice Pays Off
One of the reasons I was able to avoid colliding with that car was because of the braking and swerving practice—looking where I wanted to go instead of where I was going—that I occasionally do in empty parking lots and deserted roads. Skydivers can practice emergency landing techniques using the same principles. Make every landing an accuracy attempt. Pick a landing spot and do a downwind, base and final leg on every jump. Concentrate on your target, but maintain awareness of other canopies and take a look at the wind sock and people walking around near the target. Practice looking where you want to land instead of what you want to avoid. If you ever find yourself landing in a pasture surrounded by power lines and festooned with horse troughs and farm machinery, the practice will pay off.

Going through that simple series of motions requires the neurons in your brain that control motor function (movement) to fire in a particular sequence. The more often you repeat that physical sequence, the more “automatic” the sequence becomes. Amazingly, just thinking about making those movements stimulates both the neurons in the brain that control those movements, as well as the neural pathways in the muscles that command the muscles to move. Just imagining doing emergency procedures is almost as good as actually doing them.

But that’s not all. Practicing reactions to emergencies increases our confidence, and increased confidence lowers the stress response of our bodies when we actually face dangerous situations. Our field of vision is not as narrow as it might be otherwise, and our tendency to fixate on a “fear object” diminishes. Because our brain is in a more relaxed state, it is more able to dedicate resources to creatively addressing new challenges (for example, avoiding another jumper when landing off on that power-line-surrounded field). Instead of simply reacting to a situation, we are more able to manage our behavior by practicing the right thing instead of allowing our natural reactions to rule the situation.

About the Author
FEATURE20118-10Vic Napier, D-7555, made his first jump in 1980 and has logged 2,100 skydives since. He holds an FAA Master Rigger certificate, operated No Excuses Rigging for 10 years and has held USPA Static-Line, AFF and Tandem Instructor ratings. He earned an MBA in 2003 and is presently working on a PhD in psychology. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.


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Lexy Taylor
Sat, 04/11/2015 - 00:58

Okay, so I'm a high school student in track, and I run the 400 meter dash. On the last 100 meters of every race, I get tunnel vision. I can't feel my legs, arms, or anything, my eyes only focus on the finish line, and everything slows down. It scares me every time, because I can't tell how fast I'm going and I'm afraid if I could, I'd push myself too hard and faint or collapse. I was just wondering how I could overcome this or if tunnel vision could cause fainting or if it has any other negative affects?

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