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February 2013
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02/17/2013: "Hiding in plain sight"

Ever look for something and not find it, and later realize that it was right there and you were looking straight at it? Ever been focusing on one thing and realized you missed something else so glaringly obvious you wonder how that happened? Joked about being half asleep or needing more caffeine because you didn't see somebody at work who walked right by you in the hall and waved at you?

You're not "getting old" - it's because of the way your mind works.

You may have seen this video before. Apparently about half of the people who watch it don't see the in-your-face thing that's in it.

It's because of the way your brain processes information. Other experiments similar to the one in the video have been staged - telling someone to follow a person wearing a white cap along a path and to pay attention to them. A fight is staged alongside the path, but because of the distraction of concentrating on the person in the white cap, many people miss the fight.

The same sort of thing can happen in daily life, too, just from concentrating - even if you don't feel like you are - on one thing to the exclusion of another. We may not even notice it, since it's daily life. (The person you walked by at work - what were you thinking about at the time? There's the distraction.)

NPR had a very interesting story recently on the same phenomenon. That's an example of a non-stress situation (as opposed to the video above, following someone along a path, or chasing a suspect) where something visually large and pretty much literally in the radiologist's face was missed a huge percentage of the time, because it wasn't relevant to the job at hand.

So this thinking "problem" happens even to those trained professionals who "should" be noticing things - law enforcement officers whom we expect should see a physical incident going on don't, because they're focusing on the suspect, not the "side action", missing the latter. Most of us aren't radiologists, but the fact that they miss something in a low-stress situation indicates that it happens there as well, not just in a high-stress situation.

How does this apply to our training and how can we avoid it happening? Well, to some extent we probably can't. But being aware that it happens and trying to avoid the exclusionary focus as much as possible can help. We talk a lot in class about general awareness of what's going on around you at all times. Trying to keep that scanning mode going on - being in the "fast think" mode - enables us to pick up on things better and more quickly. Even walking down the hall at work thinking about "something else" causes this, surprising those of us who try to practice mindful alertness on a daily basis.

So scan with alertness, and if you do get into a situation, deal with it as quickly as possible. This is yet another reason we train the way we do - building muscle memory and ingrained reaction - so that dealing with an attack becomes more of a fast-think situation than a slow-think one. Can we rewire our brains and bodies? To some extent, yes, but probably not completely. But training to shorten the timespan for recognizing and reacting to situations is a large part of what we do. Shorten our timespan, reset and/or lengthen the bad guy's. Deal with what's going on and get the heck outta Dodge.

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