Beware the cognitive tunnel...

I’ve been working in the road transport sector for 20 years now, but until very recently I’d never heard of cognitive tunnelling. I don’t claim to know all the industry acronyms and lingo but considering I’ve done plenty of research on road safety over the years I’d have expected to stumble across it at some point. So if, like me, you don’t know what it is allow me to explain.

Cognitive tunnelling is one of the main causes of accidents involving human error. It’s also referred to as cognitive capture or inattentional blindness, and in simple terms it’s the mental state in which your brain focuses on just one thing. As a result, you fail to see or recognise other relevant data and this perceptual blindness causes your attention to miss even the most obvious clues to a problem that can be right in front of you. Using a metaphor, the mind’s focus can be like a floodlight dimly illuminating a large area or it can be a spotlight providing intense clarity on a single subject. Cognitive tunnelling is when your mind chooses the spotlight.

The effect can actually serve us well and it allows us to develop a mind capable of remarkable feats. For example, the mind can naturally filter out stimuli like sounds, smells and other distractions that are unimportant to a certain task, allowing the focus to remain on a single object of interest.

Where it lets us down is in hectic or stressful situations when it limits our ability to process peripheral information because we’re overcommitted to a central issue. The area of intense mental focus in spotlight mode can create a dangerous situation, where our mind becomes like a dog with a bone and gets ‘locked’ into overanalysing a specific area. This means we’re often blinded from seeing more obvious contributing factors.

Through years of research experts suggest developing a mental model (a representation of how something works) within a certain system or environment. Rather than diving in and reviewing the details of a complex project, it’s possible to simplify ideas using modelling. They allow us to plan and predict the future and to think clearly, making more intelligent decisions and better understanding our environment. Models also allow us to dig deeper when the insights don’t match the narrative. In this sense, they are a sort of internal fact-checker.

By using a mental model we can run through various scenarios before they occur, so people know where to focus their attention in an emergency or high-stress situation. They’re more able to use the spotlight intensity to run through a psychological checklist and scan for data rather than focus on just one issue, thereby avoiding the negative effects of cognitive tunnelling.

But this approach requires brain training and developing techniques to strengthen the mind, and how often is that featured in vocational driver training? For professional HGV, bus and coach drivers cognitive tunnelling is a very real threat; they have to be alert to alarms, monitors, cameras and warning lights while navigating busy roads, monitoring the load or passengers and dealing with a restricted view of the environment around them, but it’s very easy to ‘spotlight’ on one issue and miss all the others.

By introducing a mental model specifically designed for drivers it's possible to develop behaviours, improve performance and enhance safety, and surely that’s got to be top priority? I just don’t think developers and trainers know where to start.

There are four good examples of mental modelling that can be used in everyday life;

1. On your way to work, envision your day and what you’ll be doing

2. On a journey, describe to yourself what you’re seeing and what it means

3. Find other people to hear your experiences and discuss it

4. Force yourself to anticipate what will happen next. Then you’ll notice what goes unmentioned or unnoticed which can act as a warning sign

These simple exercises could be incorporated into safety-related training courses with scenarios or case studies and will help the development of cognitive skills which are crucial when working on the road for long periods. Importantly, it can serve as a way to train the mind so it becomes a more autonomous process.

While it’s not always possible to prevent cognitive tunnelling, simply by acknowledging that it’s a biological adaptation we can mentally force our brains to override it. By recognising cognitive tunnelling, we can force our minds to step above the problem by applying a mental model to see alternative solutions and answers. Let’s hope more training developers see the importance of mental modelling in the near future and understand how to use it in a learning environment.