Tunnel vision can blind us to a part of reality, literally. This phenomenon occurs fundamentally when we are highly stressed and face danger. So our critical thinking is reduced and we make impulsive decisions that may not be the most appropriate.
What is Tunnel Vision in Psychology?
When we drive too fast, our vision narrows, so that we are unable to see what is happening in our larger environment. It is estimated that at 130 kmh (81 mph), our angle of vision is only about 30 degrees, so we can only see clearly what is in front of us. What is on the sides fades to practically disappear.
Obviously, the more the speed increases, the narrower our field of vision becomes. It is as if the world around us suddenly ceases to exist. However, this tunnel effect does not only occur when we drive at a certain speed. We can also suffer tunnel vision due to anxiety and stress.
In fact, the definition of tunnel vision indicates a restricted field of vision in which we maintain central vision, but almost completely lose peripheral vision. We can see well in a straight line but the vision to both sides is very limited. This phenomenon, which is also defined as “tubular field”, is like seeing through a tube that covers our eyes.
The tunnel effect affects our perception globally
Tunnel vision can be due to stress and anxiety. In this case, reference is made to attentional narrowing and it is not usually limited only to our visual field. In practice, we see less not because we have a visual problem but because our attention is restricted.
In fact, the tunnel effect affects not only our vision but also our hearing. We not only stop seeing some stimuli but also to listen to them. We stop paying attention to them because they are not relevant to us at that time.
In this sense, an experiment carried out at Johns Hopkins University revealed that when we suffer tunnel vision, our ability to listen also decreases. That is, tunnel vision leads to a decrease in hearing, it is as if focusing our sight on something, our auditory cortex also lowers its volume.
In the same way, when these researchers provoked tunnel hearing, they found that also the performance of the visual control center decreased. These results led them to conclude that there is a tunnel effect that affects our senses and perceptual capacity in an integral way.
In some cases, when the stress is severe enough, the auditory receptors in the brain can shut down completely. Neuroscience has a term for that. It is called auditory exclusion.
Tunnel Vision caused by stress and anxiety
Tunnel vision caused by anxiety and stress may result from the combination of a fear-induced adrenaline rush that has created a specific and dangerous threat.
When we are subjected to a particularly threatening situation in our body, at physiological level occur a series of changes that prepare us to face that danger. Those changes, however, make us focus our attention on the danger, sharpening our senses in that direction and blurring the rest, so that it does not deconcentrate us.
When our emotional brain detects a threat, it quickly adjusts the visual focus of our eyes on the danger, which generates that tunnel effect. The pupils dilate due to the effect of adrenaline, which, triggered by the adrenal glands, invades the bloodstream.
At that precise moment, a large amount of light enters the eye without it having time to adjust. This increase in light affects the ability to observe what happens peripherally, generating the so-called tunnel vision. In practice, we respond as if a camera were to remove everything irrelevant from its lens to focus the attention on the element that could be a threat.
In fact, in the video below you can see the tunnel vision due to stress. At the end of it, on two occasions you can see how one of the thieves crosses twice in front of the woman who is being attacked and she does not see him because she is too focused on the other two robbers.
How to deactivate the tunnel effect?
Tunnel vision is likely to have helped our ancestors survive, but in most situations we are living today it is not beneficial to focus so much attention on one point and forget about the environment.
In fact, adrenaline surges can save our lives, but also limit our critical thinking, our senses, the motor skills and can lead us to make impulsive decisions that we later regret.
The first step to deactivate or at least reduce this tunnel effect is to be aware of its existence, especially in situations of stress and anxiety. Therefore, trying to lower the level of tension is essential to regain wider attention.
Breathing exercises are very effective in reducing stress and regaining control. In fact, its physiological effects can be noticed in just 5-8 minutes. When our brain is in a more relaxed state, it can dedicate resources to analyze the environment.
We can also try to activate our conscious mind. Tunnel vision is largely due to the emotional brain taking over, so to unblock the senses sometimes we just have to force ourselves to scan the environment. We must ask ourselves with curiosity, not fear: What am I missing? This will help us expand our visual field.
Shomstein, S. & Yantis, S. (2004) Control of Attention Shifts Between Vision and Audition in Human Cortex. J Neurosci; 24(47): 10702-10706.
Dirkin, G. R. (1983) Cognitive Tunneling: Use of Visual Information Under Stress. Percept Mot Skills; 56(1):191-198.