Safety Check | Cognitive Tunneling
By Ron Bell
Cognitive tunneling, which often manifests itself as target fixation in skydiving, is one of the principal causes of accidents that involve human error. Cognitive tunneling is the mental state in which your brain focuses on one thing and, as a result, does not see other relevant data. This perceptual blindness causes our attention to overlook even the most obvious clues to problems that are right in front of us. Metaphorically, a mind’s focus can be either like a floodlight that dimly illuminates a large area or like a spotlight that provides intense clarity on a single subject.
Cognitive tunneling served primitive man well, and it still usually serves us well today. It allows us to ignore all other stimuli that are unimportant to a task—perhaps sounds or smells—so we can focus on a single object of interest. However, in emergency or high-stress situations, cognitive tunneling most often causes negative consequences.
A jumper’s fatal reaction to a skydiving emergency that is a symptom of cognitive tunneling—for example, running into the only obstacle in an open field—may seem instead like a symptom of supreme idiocy. However, it is a normal condition that all people—even intelligent, diligent, attentive people—periodically exhibit. Cognitive tunneling is not a failure of the individual. All of us are susceptible to it and could make the same kind of mistake.
As skydivers, we often encounter stressful situations, and as a result of human evolution, our brains cause our focus to switch from floodlight to spotlight. While we often can’t prevent cognitive tunneling from occurring, merely acknowledging that it is a biological adaptation can force our brains to override this predisposition. By recognizing cognitive tunneling, we can push our minds to step above the problem so we can see the alternatives. Instructors often express this idea with the phrase, “Take your eyes off the problem and put them on the solution.”
To counter our tendency to cognitively tunnel, experts recommend having a mental model of how things work in a system. In skydiving, we produce our mental model through ongoing practice of emergency procedures. This rehearsal builds a mental image of scenarios we could encounter and allows us to run through them before they occur, giving us the ability to know where to focus attention in an actual emergency. Ultimately, the goal is to gain the clarity of mind that allows us to back away from our area of intense mental focus and see the big picture. By performing emergency reviews, we are more apt to use our spotlight intensity to run through a mental checklist and scan for data, thereby avoiding the adverse effects of cognitive tunneling.
Because building the proper mental image is so crucial to combating our natural tendency toward cognitive tunneling, we must continually modify our emergency reviews. The introduction to emergency procedures that an instructor presents in a first-jump course should be different from what the instructor presents to a student about to get an A license. After a student has completed a few jumps and has dealt with minor inconveniences under canopy, the instructor begins building on the basics. Often, jumpers stop this building process once they’re licensed, but they shouldn’t.
The best way for jumpers to continue their emergency reviews through the years is by using a scenario-based process. Merely looking at a malfunction photo and talking through the process is not enough for jumpers past the first-jump course. Instead, convert your “no s***, there I was” cutaway stories into scenarios for emergency review so everyone can learn from these lessons. Engage in reviews that are relative to your experience. If you have an A license, your process will be similar to the one for a jumper with thousands of jumps and a wing loading of 2.7:1, but the timing and reactions at different altitudes will be very different. Your rehearsal scenario should start before the wave off and run through the reserve deployment and canopy-control check. Maybe throw in a complication that puts you too low to make it back to the drop zone. Now you have to pick an open area to land in and think about the decisions you must make while still amped up from a cutaway.
Panic causes cognitive tunneling. Calm acceptance of danger allows us to assess the situation and see the options more easily. Mentally rehearse critical moments and the procedures you will use during them. Not doing so puts you at a higher risk of allowing cognitive tunneling to capture you. And you don’t want to be labeled a victim of supreme idiocy.
Ron Bell | D-26863
USPA Director of Safety and Training