Cultivating Awareness

[…]a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.” William Least Heat Moon

Our last post was on April Fools Day. We posted an appropriate post, saying our philosophy had changed to a very left-of-center, naturalistic, and pacific position of harmony and… well, you get the idea. It was, of course, bullshit: A prank, a joke, a laugh. Still, we got some pretty negative feedback from a few of you who didn’t get the gag. To those who took us seriously, and were upset, hopefully there are no hard feelings; Please don’t think we’re laughing at you. Well, not anymore. We got all that out of our systems months ago, honest!
April 1st (April Fools or All Fools day) is traditionally a day of pranks. While the origins are murky, the spirit of the day is well known to many, if not most. From time to time we may forget what day it is, and begin to fall victim to an April 1st prank. Most times before we fully fall however, we realize the day and snap to facts pretty quickly. Sometimes though, we succumb to unawareness and are taken for the fool. With April Fools pranks and such nonsense this is harmless, but there are times and situations where any lapse of relevant awareness might prove very dangerous.
With this (particularly the examples of folks who took it seriously) and the recent Paying Attention post well in mind, it seemed to be a good time to go over some thoughts on awareness, and cultivating it. All of us could benefit from more practice at paying attention, and ideas on cultivating awareness also apply to maintaining awareness.
Much of this writing is framed around self defense and awareness of potential criminal assault, but should provide information valid across a broad area of interests that also benefit from improved awareness.

Awareness as a Tool
Awareness, as used here, is not the general awareness that yes the sky is blue and we are alive, but more specifically Situational Awareness. To borrow from the Wiki entry, Situational Awareness is “the perception of environmental elements with respect to time and/or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable changed, such as time.” Rather than general awareness, this is awareness of potential bad shit as it’s encroaching upon us. Ideally, an awareness that is in time for us to avoid, or at least dominate, the situation.
Situational awareness is a tool of constant importance, not just something to turn on and off when “things go down” (once things are going down, you’re way behind the curve). Nor is it a process of accessing a static moment after it has happened. It is a constant process of perceiving your environment, processing the nature of objects and events, and determining their meaning both immediate and in the future as the variables change. This is thus not mere recognition of existence, but a more active process at the front end of our decision making, feeding us relevant information.
Our situational awareness is the bubble with which we first “touch” the world around us. If you are paying attention, using your senses together and constantly taking in surroundings and events, your bubble is larger. If you are not, your bubble is smaller and everything is that much closer to you (in time and distance) before you are aware of it.
Good situational awareness is fundamental. It makes you better at almost everything, from driving to navigating office-politics minefields, to personal security. Without good situational awareness, you can have enormous amounts of technical skill, and never have the opportunity to make good use of it. Because we cannot get advance notice before bad things happen, the best we have is to be able to register their potential or development sooner. If you’re tuned out at that random moment when chaos occurs, your recognition of danger may come too late, and someone or -thing will take advantage of your inattention and eat you.
Our first layer of protection is our awareness of whats going on around and within us, and the speed with which we can process and respond to those inputs. Note how I slipped that word “within” in there: Our internal voice of alarm, and our own mental/emotional state, are critical. That little internal voice, or the odd feeling of discomfort, often comes from something we have seen or recognized that has not consciously registered. That little voice exists for a reason,and it saves lives. Also internal, our own mental or emotional state changes how we deal with things before us, and being aware and in control of our current state is essential to keeping a cool and unclouded head.
Good situational awareness is something that takes effort. Paying attention takes work, and habitually doing so takes long-term cultivation. Even once developed over time our alertness can slip, and simply become dulled, without effort at maintaining it. The way we are commonly raised and live never really instills good situational awareness, and then actively tries to beat it out of us with distractions, placations and illusions of happiness and safety. Coupling the above with natural phenomena which work against situational awareness, the result is that good situational awareness is neither wholly innate nor permanent, and must be given due attention. It is a tool which must be developed and routinely honed, and demands hard work to achieve the greatest results.
So, like all our skillsets, we are given a choice. Develop them, and maintain them, or let them languish and wither. If we’re making the right choice, practice with and improvement upon situational awareness (to include hard evaluation of our utilization or lack-there-of), should be part of our routine of self improvement and evaluation.

Know Thyself, and What Thyself Knows
Our situational awareness depends on being able to trust the information we receive from the environment and our interpretation of it. To know we are seeing what we need to be seeing, and that our take on it is valid (without any risk of second guessing ourselves, literally, to death), requires more than simply seeing, or assuming.
This begins with yourself. Most of what we know at any given moment goes unrecognized, it is noise we filter out to focus on the current object of our attention. For the uninitiated who don’t know what to pay attention to and not, as well as those beginning to dull at the edges due to the cognitive predations of time, this is a starting point. Learn what you know, and to be aware of your own knowing of things. Doing this both familiarizes you with being attuned to your environment and your internal voice, and can aid in providing you with background against which to screen new (potentially important) inputs.
An exercise I’ve been taught in several contexts, and found to be valuable in personal practice, is as follows:
One day (or for a series of days), stop once every hour for about five minutes to ask yourself the following questions: What am I feeling at this moment? What am I hearing? What do I taste? What am I smelling? What do I see? What do I know right now?
Use this tool to tune yourself in to what you are actually seeing and otherwise sensing, what you feel, and what you know. This tool should be revisited from time to time, as part of routine maintenance.
You always _____ (see, smell, taste, hear, feel) far more than you’re aware of. Spending time actually attending to things usually tuned out helps us, if nothing else, learn to trust that voice that speaks of things we didn’t consciously register: Call it intuition, gut feeling, whatever. That little voice has been much maligned, and often we’re encouraged to ignore it as being prejudices or unreliable emotions at work. This is fundamentally wrong, and both anecdotes and serious studies provide illustration of the value of intuition.
Working on knowing yourself, what and how you sense, provides the internal familiarity necessary to validate your intuition. This exercise, and similar questioning of oneself routinely, should also improve your broad situational awareness (such as it exists), by giving you cause to actually take in more of your environment regularly.

Inattentional Blindness – The Key?
This is probably the point at which to make clear that broad-spectrum situational awareness appears to be a fallacy, and not within our cognitive ability. Instead, our natural tendency is to focus on particulars, and fill-in everything else (whitewash with expected information, vs. perceive what is actually there), particularly the unexpected.
This is, at least in part, the work of phenomena known as Inattentional Blindness, and Change Blindness. In short, inattentional blindness is the phenomenon of not perceiving things plainly within our field of view, because of inattention to the unseen object or event. Change blindness is the related phenomenon of inability to perceive changes to scenes. We have to note that these are normal phenomena; These are not occurrences of a damaged brain, or some “other” brain, but rather the natural functioning of your brain and mine, and everyone else’s (Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events, Simons et al, Perception, v28, 1999, discusses inattentional blindness, and the relationship with change blindness in more detail. The following study information is also contained therein).
In the case of inattentional blindness, among the more well known (and oft repeated) studies of this phenomenon is to task study participants with watching a mock basketball game and counting the number of passes made by the players in a particular of two team colors. At some point during the game, a man in a gorilla suit (or in some variations, a woman with an umbrella) will walk through the middle of the scene. In all studies of this type, a significant portion of observers fail to notice the unexpected event; Their focus being on watching for and counting passes, they are blind to even a dramatic event due to inattention. In the case of change blindness, it appears that this blindness to unattended events carries over to noticing changes in scenes. For example, studies of change blindness where participants are tasked with observing an image of a scene which, as the viewer blinks, is changed to a similar image of the scene with changes made. Few people are able to identify the changes. In other studies, participants are engaged in conversation with another person when a temporary barrier comes between them, such as workmen carrying a door. Behind this block, the other party is replaced by a new person. Upon removal of the barrier a significant number of particiants fail to notice the change.
The cause of these phenomena, put simply, is that we fill in rather than perceive the environment around the object of our attention. We fail to perceive items and events to which we are not attending, causing us to be both immediately blind to them and blind to any change in the unattended elements of a scene as we have not perceived them to remember them. This does not occur solely within the visual realm either; A 2008 study (Auditory attention causes visual inattentional blindness, Pizzighello,S., Bressan, P., Perception, v37, 2008) noted that inattentional blindness occurred when the task being attended was auditory, and a 2007 study (Executive Working Memory Load Induces Inattentional Blindness, Fougnie, D., Marois, R., Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, v14, 2007 ) showed that tasks of working memory could also induce inattentional blindness. Further, these phenomena appear to increase as the difficulty of the task to which we are attending increases (The role of perceptual load in inattentional blindness, Cartwright-Finch, U. ,Lavie, N., Cognition, 2007).

The upshot to all this, is that paying attention is great but if you aren’t paying attention to the right thing, you might not notice it. This seems to be a key problem of situational awareness. As we cannot spend all our time watching for threats, we are disadvantaged by our own brain function when it comes to early spotting of trouble. The question becomes how do we overcome this?
Training seems to be the obvious answer. An in-press paper by a team of researchers from the University of London (Why are some People Inattentionally Blind and can Training reduce its frequency of occurrence, Richards, A., Hannon, E.M., Derakshan, N., School of Psychology, Birkbek College, University of London) reports findings that training, by viewing the scene prior to performing an inattentional blindness task, reduced the frequency of inattentional blindness. “The predicted increase in attentional resources from training appears to make the unexpected stimulus more likely to be seen rather than less,” say the authors. The authors also note, “These findings suggest that IB can be manipulated by training, which may have implications for training of, for example, drivers and pilots.”
If drivers and pilots can benefit from training, then we can believe that other fields can benefit as well. After all it is easier to attend to objects, events and changes for which we are somehow prepared. So, how do we prepare for an unknown and out of the ordinary event without knowing specifically what it is? We learn to focus on and respond to learned cues, to recognize things and changes in our environment that are relevant markers of conditions or actions.
Relevancy of things in our environment makes the difference between what we are aware of, and what goes unnoticed. We come to assign things relevancy through experience and very good teaching. Both experience and good training for high risk environments can teach us subtle cues of impending problems or danger. Experienced law enforcement, military and emergency personnel, as well as drivers, horsemen, climbers, and other dedicated professionals are sensitive to cues relevant to them, from years on the job. Often, in addition to experience, their recognition of cues also stems from (or, if they are fortunate, is rooted in) training and practice, particularly at the hands of good mentors who can translate their own experience into teachable elements that highlight relevant signatures.
In problems of violence, this presents some difficulty. Experienced bar bouncers, cops, and others who deal with problems of criminal assault on a frequent basis can often identify cues warning of impending assaults, but what about the average Joe worried about protecting his family? The average Joe probably lacks experience with human predators, much less at violence (this can also often be true of professionals who may face, or need to employ, violence), so how does the inexperienced but needful individual develop their sensitivity to these subtle cues? Training. Good self-protection training, that which is contextual to the “criminal assault paradigm”, can employ these cues in role-played scenarios, and give the student a better awareness of them. Repeated hard training, pressure testing, in a contextually underscored environment will only increase and reinforce lessons learned. The same if true for any other field and area of performance where situational awareness is crucial: Contextual training, at the hands of experienced teachers (those who are doing the work to bring together, prove and teach valuable lessons from their experience and own on-going training), a component of which is pressure testing the student under realistic conditions, is crucial.
Hard pressure testing forces students not to parrot what is being provided, but rather take ownership of it through hard work. Hard contextual training imparts experience of value all on its own. Contextual implies that such hard training is grounded in reality rather than fantasy. Such training is properly built on learning, and thus integrating into training, relevant signatures of criminal assault or whatever risky/threatening patterns are of concern.
Endeavors such as studying and observing body language (for self protection students), or spending time woodswalking (for the survival student) can provide a great deal of both information and experience for recognition of relevant patterns. Those who seek out such learning opportunities and related real world exposure will be much more sensitive to relevant things in their environment than those who don’t. However, it s not enough to watch the mountain, you must also climb it. Without hard challenge to our skills, we are denying ourselves fundamental elements of the experienced whole that contributes to improved awareness. Hard training, and hard experience where possible (hard experience at violence is something the self protection student will seek to avoid, however other arenas where situational awareness is important, such as extreme sports, provide hard experiences in and of themselves), is essential to developing our framework of recognizable patterns for focusing our attention and initiating our decision process.
This nuanced, sometimes hard to describe, sort of experience-derived knowing, when supporting the task of paying attention to the environment appears to offer mitigation of inattentional blindness effects on situational awareness (not by granting us any greater ability to recognize unattended events or objects, but by allowing us to capitalize on relevant cues to trigger our attention). Put another way, learning cues through good training and experience does not cease inattentional blindness, but provides us the information necessary to task ourselves with attending to the relevant stimuli.
Adding value, such training builds our decision making abilities for the fight (or whatever environment/situation is being trained for), and allows us to connect our awareness processes with our decision making, which is essential.

One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. On January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

Tasks, Routine, and Lifestyle
In the real world failures of attention occur for myriad reasons, and often our behavior encourages them. Very often we set ourselves up for ongoing series of attentional failure, with our actions and habits.
A 1996 paper on awareness failures in airplane crashes (Sources of Situation Awareness Errors in Aviation, Jones, D.G., Endsley, M.R., Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, v67, 1996) provides a list of situational awareness errors in the following categories: Failure to correctly perceive the situation; Failure to comprehend the situation; Failure to project the situation into the future.
On the first count, Jones and Endsley describe that failures to perceive the situation correctly may arise when information is not attended to despite its availability, and note that heavy task loads can induce such failures. The authors also note that information can be attended to, but incorrectly perceived due to prior expectations. In studying airplane crash reports from the NTSB, the study authors identified several causes for these first category of failures, including environmental interference preventing individuals from attending to information, distraction by other tasks or demanding task load in general, distraction by things not related to the primary-task, and individuals relying on expectation rather than verification by attending to the object/environment in question.
For the second category of error, information may be perceived without the meaning being comprehended. The paper posits that this may occur due to lacking a strong mental model for combining the available information into something meaningful, or the attempt to process the information with an inappropriate model. Also offered is that over reliance on “defaults” in a given model may cause failure to comprehend the situation when that expectation in absence of data fails. In the study of crashes, such failures included individual failures to attend to information given and resulting assumption or default to a standard behavior, as well as expectation of the behavior of others rather than offering explicit instruction or verification of information. Distraction and preoccupation were noted underlying factors for failures to apply a new or correct model to the situation.
In the third category, the individual is aware of their situation, what is happening immediately, but is unable to extrapolate that into future meaning. The given causes are, again, a failure of the model relied upon to provide framework for projection, and the general difficulty of mental projection tasks. Failures in this category included incorrect response to information due to poor understanding of systems, and incorrect predictions of the meaning of speed and location information.
Put into a context of situational awareness in a daily, two-feet on the ground, environment, you should probably be able to easily identify such failures or the potential there-of. Failures resulting from being unable to see or otherwise perceive important details of the environment due to position or interfering objects/people, failures because of distraction or preoccupation, and then further failures because of assumption in place of the missing information happen all the time: You ask your wife if she put the milk back in the fridge, she doesn’t hear you or you don’t hear her response, so with your focus still on listening to the TV you were just watching, you walk right past the milk on the counter and open up the fridge to look. Failures to accurately project the meaning of information should be equally easy to imagine, even if its something as simple as misjudging the speed and direction of the running dog and getting our feet knocked out from under us.
Countering many of these failures comes back to actively working to know ourselves and what we know and having the right training and experience, to give us strong models to handle the information we perceive, but there is more to it than that as well. We’ll get more into specific actions and behaviors that improve your ability to run situational awareness routines in an upcoming article; Here we’re talking about overall lifestyle. You must cultivate a lifestyle that facilitates situational awareness, and minimizing interference. While anyone is at risk for succumbing to task related failures at some point, we set ourselves up in other ways. Task induced failures occur alongside others rooted in boredom, distraction, depression or neuroticism and assumption. Often these occur not alongside, but together in a chain or related sequence of attentional failures. It seems that the common term in this industry, “Task Fixation”, is describing the daily effects of either/both inattentional blindness and attentional failures due to insufficient attentiveness caused by one or another different factors. It is important to note that the object of fixation may not be a “task” in the physical sense, but a purely mental task or emotional state which has captured our attention.

Most folks have a routine. They do roughly the same things, most days, in the same order. Go to work, go home, go to work, go home, go to work, go to the store, go home. Perhaps not the ideal life, but such routine is often the reality of life. Even in different circumstances, routine can be hard to escape. There are things in our lives that need done regularly, and doing them in a particular order usually works best. That routine, however, may not be best for us as individuals.
We are lulled by routine, particularly a routine we find uninteresting or even depressing, into a state of lower awareness. We require novel stimulation to maintain interest in scenes, and sometimes our daily life doesn’t provide that unless we seek it out. Work is boring, there is nothing particularly great going on at the house, you’re bored, and after awhile of that, possibly depressed too. Such factors quickly add up to not paying attention, often relying on assumption rather than awareness (“No one followed me to my car the last 597 days I left work, so no one followed me today”). Rather than a large bubble of awareness, your inattention to the external confines you into a very small sphere, mostly reactionary rather than observant and predictive. Rather than your bubble of awareness reaching out around you, you are drawn in to a very narrowed focus, mostly on the immediate tasks to get through the day. Things in your environment have to actually penetrate this focus, to get your attention, and to do that, they have to get very close. Close is the last thing you want in a threat, be it from predators, impending accidents, or anything else that can do you harm. The closer threats and potential threats are before recognizing them, the less time you have to respond.
The same thing happens when we are tired, or when we allow ourselves to become focused on a particular task to the exclusion of all else. Tiredness slows us down, our thinking gets foggy and we focus intently on tasks just to get through them, only solidifying the tightened confines of our bubble. We must break out of these things.
Keeping an active, alert, mind despite dull routine can be as easy as finding simple things to entertain us, or keep our interest. Instead of listening to the radio play the same twenty songs every day, listen to different things, CD’s, your whole library of Mp3s on Shuffle, audiobooks, etc. that keep you aware (but avoid using an iPod, sticking earbuds in only removes us further from the rest of the world). Play games that challenge and stimulate you. Engage in creative activities, be they writing, drawing, crafts, or whatever. Use dull times to go over these things in your mind. Relate things you read or hear to things in your environment, actively look for inspiration and solutions to problems in your work, art or life in the environment and activities around you. Engage your mind, and make your mind engage in the world around you. Giving yourself stimulation to look and think farther than your own shadow does wonders for improving situational awareness.

If you are living the hurried and harried, but overly routine, life so common for many, your situational awareness is being impaired somewhere, somehow (probably in multiple ways). It is time to slow down, and expand: Break the routine, look up and around rather than down and only at work or other tasks. Rather than adding pressure, you need to find ways to cut stress, and work in the time to eat well, sleep well and play well. Like the very act of paying attention, this takes work, but is worth it on so many levels, not the least of which will be enabling cultivation or improvement of situational awareness.

Games
Some tools often talked about for helping new students of self-defense, and kids, develop their situational awareness are of value to improving situational awareness as well. These tools take the form of games played with yourself, while going about your daily routine.
The first is to spend a period of time, say a trip to the store, trying to spot a particular thing. Orange shirts, for example, can be your focus; Try to spot everyone with an orange shirt before they get within thirty feet. You can incentivize this by allowing yourself a reward for success, and denying it for failure. If no one in an orange shirt gets within thirty feet of you before you see them, in a day, you can have that chocolate bar, buy that new tool or toy, or whatever. This game starts fairly simple, with a single thing, but has a great deal of room for expansion. You can add new elements to what you’re trying to be aware of, so that rather than playing the game with just one thing, you are trying to be aware of and track multiple things. This allows you less time for each task, and forces you to engage in the process much more actively.
Another game is to, again as you go about your daily routine, try to actively think like a “bad guy”. If you were a predator of other human beings, what would you do with the information presented you at any given moment? What advantages could you take, what weaknesses do you see in others, in environments? This is an illuminating and interesting game for several reasons, and one of my favorites to play. Many report having a lot of fun with this game, and I suspect it stimulates the brain in some way that pleasingly tickles our inner atavistic predator. There is nothing wrong with that, as there are many lessons that can be learned from this game. Trying to think like a predator, gives you an idea (albeit, probably mild) of how those people watch you. You should be able to take away lessons about what your behavior could signal or give the opportunity for, or validation of what you aren’t giving opportunity for. As well as that increase of your awareness of your self, within your environs, this can begin helping you to be aware of others watching you; Few people watch others actively, it is a behavior of the dialed in of both good and bad intents. Being watched is not a sure sign of anything, but it always bears watching. Our think-like-a-badguy game is another that cultivates an active and aware mind, engaging with the environment rather than ignoring all but the parts of it immediately ahead. If this is a new way of thinking and perceiving for you, then this will be very good for you. When you think like a predator, and watch like a predator, you’re more actively observing than most people do. Taking note of movements, weaknesses, opportunities is an aware behavior, and essentially the same routine an aware protection minded individual runs. Feeling like you need to really hone your observational habits, for situational awareness? Play this game. Just want to stay sharp? Play this game.
You can get fairly creative from here, and start developing and playing your own awareness developing or enhancing games.
As you move into developing your own practice of playing awareness games, you should endeavor to connect the pieces of what we learn from other games, and from awareness enhancing training, and make our games contextual. Awareness games need to be designed in a way that matches signatures relevant to our needs. This gives us the opportunity to recognize pertinent patterns, as well as develop a picture of the background against which to screen.
As a contextual game, “what if” thinking may be of some value. The practice of entertaining “what if” type thinking during casual moments or downtime is often discussed among self defense students and professionals in violent environments. An example of this would be mentally gaming the possible responses to a carjacking attempt while forced to stop, say at a drive up teller or red-light (of course, not so intensely that you lose situational awareness). This is not the Rambo-esque fantasy time for imagining taking forty PVS14 begoggled ninjas wielding SCAR-CQB Heavy’s in the teller lane, but rather for taking accurate assessments of the environment, potential risks and your true resources and abilities. This type of contextual and reasonable “what if” game encourages information gathering and planning, which has been suggested to improve situational awareness and response to critical events (Training for Situation Awareness, Endsley, M.R., Garland, D.J, Situation Awareness Analysis and Measurement, 2000).
As part of routine mental practice for being a better human being, never mind a still breathing one, games are good. Using your mind in this way is part of what we were talking about before, in breaking the monotony of life and avoiding the uncreative and inobservant fugues that so many succumb to. Games give us reason to work on paying attention, and stay interested in doing so; Done right they provide us valuable “training” and feedback, enhancing our situational awareness overall.

Situational awareness is crucial to our daily lives, from driving to not stepping on that sharp rock; The higher the risks of our pursuits and professions, the more our success and sustained corporeal integrity depends on good situational awareness.
This is not the end-all, be-all, writing on situational awareness, or even on maintaining or cultivating it, but rather my observations of some issues and methods of value. You should look for your own ways to increase and maintain your awareness, your own games to play and practices to instill; And as with all things, everything, everything, should be pressure tested savagely, with as much realism and ego-less evaluation as possible.

In the coming weeks, there will be at least two more articles on situational awareness posted, to expand a little more on some of the things quickly moved through in this initial piece.

(Credit where Credit is Due: I have tried hard not to redundantly go over ground covered by others in other articles on situational awareness, and to make this an original article that adds value to the community, rather than mimicking. To that end, I’ve use many original ideas, but few of them are really mine. Much of what I know, believe, and practice about awareness and thus have shared here, owes to the richly intellectual community that is Total Protection Interactive. My thanks to you all.
Any abuse, misconstruction, or poor expression of concepts and ideas is wholly my own, however.)



One response to “Cultivating Awareness”

  1. Ian Wendt says:

    Excellent writeup, bro.
    One game I routinely play while I’m at work is to pick out the .mil guys in civvies, the cops off-duty or plain-clothes, and anybody in general that is carrying. It’s fun and I’m always amused at how little others are paying attention to such things.

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