The Cornered Cat

Ask any self defense instructor, and they will tell you that it’s critically important to be aware of the world around you. Some of them even use special code words to explain the concept: Conditions White, Yellow, Orange, and Red indicate different levels of alertness and willingness to act.

Ask any cognitive psychologist or neuroscientist the same question, and they will tell you that consistent awareness is nearly impossible for the human animal. Some of them will even use highly amusing videos to explain basic concepts about how awareness works—and how it fails. For example, before reading any further, please view the embedded video below, or visit it directly from the source at

When watching the video, try to count the total number of times the people wearing white pass the basketball. Do not count the passes made by the people wearing black.


Spoiler Alert! Be sure you watch the video before you click “Continue Reading”…

Continue Reading

Did you see the gorilla? The researchers found that roughly half of their subjects did not notice the gorilla—even though it moved directly to the center of the visual field, made obvious movements, and remained in the center of the view for several seconds as people were apparently looking right at it. What in the world was going on there?

If you didn’t watch the video, but are certain that you would have spotted the gorilla if you had, check this out: according to the authors (as reported in their book The Invisible Gorilla—and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us), other researchers once described the gorilla experiment to over one hundred undergraduate students without actually showing them the video. After hearing about the experiment, the students were asked whether they would have noticed the gorilla if they had participated in the experiment themselves. Fully 90 percent of them predicted they would have seen it. But as the authors note, “When we originally conducted the study, though, only 50 percent actually did.”

And for those who are feeling smug because you did indeed notice the gorilla, chances are it doesn’t mean a thing about your ability to notice other stuff. That’s what the researchers say—as you’ll probably confirm for yourself if you follow the rest of the links in this article. 1

Here’s another cool video, this one from This is the “Amazing Colour-Changing Card Trick.” Don’t blame me for colour. The researcher does not have an American accent so he must be forgiven for adding the gratuitous British U to the word.

Are you starting to get the picture yet? It turns out that most of us notice some things, but we totally miss other stuff—stuff that nearly everyone intuitively feels should be downright obvious. Personally, I felt a bit dense after viewing the color change video.

If you have time to read more, you might check out a truly intriguing blog entry from…-under-matter/. You will recognize one of the embedded videos (it’s the color-changing card trick we just watched), but go ahead and read the rest of the entry too. Since I do want to say a few things myself, that’s about it for truly fascinating links, though you can find plenty more like them all over the place online if you want to go down that particular rabbit hole.

What does this mean for us?

I think a lot of these perceptual studies about human brain quirks have huge implications for people who believe they are always in Condition Yellow and therefore are always aware of every detail of the world around them. The truth is, you’re not always aware of what’s happening, even when you think you’re paying attention. Worse than that, the more attention you are paying to one particular person or event, the less likely you are to notice other people or events.

Awhile back, I did a bit of research about the cognition effects experienced under extreme stress. These are effects such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, time distortions, and visual illusions. 2 Most of us in the shooting world are passingly familiar with these phrases and have a vague-ish idea what they mean. We know that under stress, humans focus in on the threat, and may not notice other things happening around us. The things we do notice may loom larger or shrink smaller in our perceptions than they are in physical reality. We may not hear even loud, obvious noises such as the sound of gunfire or people shouting. We may not see even obvious movements from other people. We may not see other people at all, even those standing close to us. We may also have a distorted perception of the passage of time—it speeds up, it slows down, everything happens all at once, everything happens in slow motion. Again, we think of these as stress-related phenomena, and of course they are.

But the research clearly shows that many of these perceptual phenomena are not strictly limited to times of extreme stress. In fact, people are slipping in and out of these oddly distorted awareness states all the time, but we’re rarely aware of them. We might be unaware of them because few people ever examine a few brief moments of their lives with the intense scrutiny that a deadly force event is later subject to. Whatever the reason, such states often pass unnoticed, unremarked and unremembered. After all, the key detail here is that people don’t notice what they did not notice.

What all of this means is that even the most alert person in the entire world is unaware of her surroundings some unknown but non-zero portion of the time.

What should we do about it?

As I mentioned in the companion article to this one, I think it’s quite possible, and definitely desirable, to pay more attention to the outside world than most others do. Just deciding to notice important details such as who’s entering the restaurant or who’s around us as we unlock our cars is a big step to avoiding potential danger. Choosing to live in a state of relaxed awareness, with our senses wide open to the world around us, definitely improves our quality of life and increases our chances of spotting danger before it develops to its extreme.

But we must also acknowledge this depressing fact: the research clearly shows that even people who are paying attention can be caught off guard or caught by surprise. And of course criminals look for opportunities and watch for times when their potential victims are not at their best. They are most likely to attack when their intended victim (you!) is tired, sick, or distracted.

That means several things. First, it means that if we are honest with ourselves and serious about self-defense, we must give some honest and serious thought to these factors. When you look for defensive firearms training, or martial arts training, ask the instructor whether their techniques are designed to hold up when dealing with a sudden threat that “comes out of nowhere.” In martial arts, if you always practice defending yourself from an attack you will see coming, and always start from a predictable ready position, then you are not preparing to deal with this sort of surprise. In the firearms world, if you only practice your draw when squared up to your target at a carefully-measured seven yards, you will almost certainly miss the important lessons. To truly develop these skills for both martial arts and firearms work, you must practice defending against unknown attacks starting from off-balance, disadvantageous, or unanticipated positions. You should also work with targets set at angles, distances, and locations you did not anticipate, and you should be forced to make important decisions while you draw. Of course the threat that “comes out of nowhere” is actually a failure of awareness, but that’s the point. Nobody is as continuously aware as we all wish we could be.

Second, it means that whenever we are tempted to blame the victim in a news story for not paying attention, or for missing something that in retrospect should have been obvious, we should tread lightly. There but for the grace of God go we. A realistic understanding of human nature — and the nature of criminal attacks — acknowledges that a usually-aware person might find themselves behind the curve, taken unawares, fighting for their lives after they missed the first cue and didn’t see the opening gambit.

Finally—and here’s the huge take-away for most of this stuff—I think a lot of the studies show that general awareness and specific focus seem to be mutually exclusive. That’s why good trainers teach their students about tunnel vision and urge them to “break out of the tunnel” by deliberately looking around after defending themselves. To improve our personal security, we should almost certainly do the same thing after minor mental-focus shifts in more mundane circumstances. After we have had a moment of heightened focus on one particular person or behavior, after we’ve answered that vital text message, after reading the resaurant menu or counting our change from the cashier, we should deliberately look around and see the wider world. After you focus in on a task, deliberately break out of your mental tunnel and look around!

I hope this article has helped you understand the persistent and pervasive illusions that affect your decision-making, your understanding of the events around you, and your ability to stay safe in a dangerous world.





  1. For those who enjoy learning more about how human brains work, you might be interested in reading the study for which the gorilla video was created. You can find that study, Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events, online at The authors, Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris, explain that humans are “surprisingly unaware” of details that happen around us. They believe—and research sustains their claim—that people often do not detect large changes to the things we do see, and that we may not even see even a large item to which we are not paying attention. In their paper, the authors presented several studies of divided visual attention to examine “inattentional blindness for complex objects and events in dynamic scenes.” In plain English, they studied and then tried to explain how so many people could fail to notice such an obvious thing as a large, moving gorilla that was in the very center of a scene they were studying intently. It’s a fascinating read and well worth your time if you can dig through the dry academic language.
  2. If you want to learn more about tunnel vision and auditory exclusion as it relates to shooting events, you might start with this article from Force Science News:…ime-to-update/. The bottom line on this one is that when we are paying very sharp attention to one thing, we are less likely to notice anything else. This is especially true about anything that comes to us from the senses we are not directly using to explore the thing we are most concerned about. The more stress we are feeling, or the more intensely we are focused on the task at hand, the less likely we are to notice the things we are not noticing.