Turning a Tunnel into a Funnel

I recently discovered something about myself that gave me reason to reflect on how humans learn behaviors and habits. In this particular case, it might be more accurate to say how we unlearn them.

Some Background

I’ve been driving legally since I was 14 (at least, most of the driving I did was legal, although there were in few tickets during my high school days that alleged excessive speed. Since I chose to plead not guilty then, I can hardly say otherwise now). The point is, I’ve now been driving on public roads and highways for nearly half a century.

In all those years, I’ve had three automobile accidents. In two of them, I was parked and hit by someone that should never have been allowed to operate anything more complex than a can opener. In the third, I fell asleep at the wheel on a mountain road and installed my ’59 Bonneville in the roof of a fellow’s home, instantly replacing his television set with the front end of my car.

So, that one really stupid (and costly… VERY costly) accident aside, I think that 47 years with only one mishap speaks pretty well of my driving ability. I’ve driven on six continents, in desert and arctic conditions, sometimes in traffic that can only be described as chaotic, all without mishap, which is no mean feat. Is that because I’m a skilled driver?

No. It’s because I’m an attentive driver – what is often referred to as a defensive driver. I always made it a point to pay a great deal of attention to everything going on (or potentially going on) around me. It saved my ass many times.

What the Hell all this has to do with Anything

Just as I learned to watch out for potential traffic hazards, I later learned to make fastening my seatbelt an integral part of starting my car. After doing both for a time, it became an automatic and often unconscious response.

Lately though, I haven’t had occasion to drive at all for quite a while – for at least five or six months. With the exception of the occasional need to visit the convenience store on the corner when I run out of cigarettes (that’s another sort of habit, for another day), I rarely even leave the house.

Hell, I spent 100+ hours a week in my office downstairs, only rarely seeing the rest of the house in daylight. (Note to self: get a life!)

But last month, my daughter, who does all the running around, shopping and sundry errands for the household, went out of town for three weeks. So one day, I needed to hop in the car and run to the store for something.

And that’s when it hit me.

Not literally. In fact, I almost hit him. A car that was pulling out from a side street, that a few months ago, I would have noticed 100 meters before I reached that intersection, totally escaped my notice until the point that he was directly in front of me. Stomp on brakes, smile at driver’s single-digit salute and evil glare, then proceed cautiously.

That’s when I also realized that I hadn’t fastened my seatbelt… something I’m normally anal about, since they’ve saved my life twice before.

And that’s what got me thinking. Why did I forget my seatbelt? Why had my normally attentive driving habits deteriorated?

For my friends out there, all quick to poke fun and make disparaging remarks, hinting at failing vision or classic dementia: Byte me!

My vision corrects just fine with my bifocals, and had nothing to do with not noticing that car.

My mental acuity is fine, too. You’ll just have to take my word for that. Neither Alzheimer’s nor senility are knocking at my door. The only pervasive signs of old age that are evident is getting up to pee in the middle of the night and muttering about the kids playing in our front yard.  Okay, I have a problem with the nimrods that insist on wearing their trousers 12 inches below their waist, too – but I think most of us do, our age notwithstanding.

An Epiphany

So, later, thinking about it, here’s the “conclusion” I came to:

I spend all day, every day, staring at a computer monitor. I may be writing some copy, editing some code, tailoring an image or reviewing a link profile… the point is, whatever task I’m on, tunnel vision is what’s called for.

I don’t dart my eyes around, looking for potential hazards or periodically check a rear view mirror for unexpected dangers. I don’t even have to look down at my keyboard, thanks to having taken a typing class in high school (yeah – shortly after typewriters were invented). And so far, I haven’t fallen off my office chair, so I’ve had no need to install a seat belt.

But my theory is this, in two parts:

First, the most obvious – a prolonged break from performing any habitual task is likely to result in some lessening of automatic or unconscious actions. No surprise there.

Second, though, is the tunnel vision aspect. I’ve gotten used to looking at a monitor and unconsciously ignoring anything that might normally be caught in my peripheral vision. I’ve stopped feeling any need to be attentive of things that aren’t directly in front of me.

Which raises an interesting question. Do those of us that spend the majority of our waking hours working on a computer screen gradually stop noticing things outside of that “tunnel”? Do our kids, who often seem to be super-glued to their iPhones, see a lessening of their peripheral awareness?

Does it extend beyond just vision? Does the tunnel vision create a type of focus that also allows us to be virtually unaware of not only motions outside of that tunnel, but perhaps also sounds that have no place in our focus?

I suspect so. I think it’s more than just being engrossed in what we’re doing that causes us to not hear when someone speaks to us while we’re watching the Leafs trounce the Rangers or when we’re reading an engaging book.

I think what I noticed runs deeper than simply being engrossed or “losing” a long-held habit.

For instance, when you visit a web news site that you hit daily, do you always notice the banner ads on their homepage? Or have you become so accustomed to them that you no longer notice them? I think we’ve all experienced a tendency to stop “seeing” things that are commonplace, yet unimportant to us. No surprise there, either.

But we’ve all probably also found ourselves feeling as though something is wrong, when something we’ve become unconsciously used to being present is suddenly not there. Maybe we can’t put our finger on why, but something’s just “not right”.  Our subconscious has typically shown an ability to capture a lot more than ever penetrates our awareness. That’s why a witness to a crime can, under hypnosis, recall minute details of clothing, items carried by someone or entire license plate numbers that they are certain they never looked at.

But does such an intensified level of focus on a monitor gradually allow for a dialing down of our subconscious? I think that would be an interesting target for some clinical testing.

What Possible Good Could Come of it?

Okay, if you’re reading this, you probably work with marketing to some extent. Need I say more? I’m not talking about loud autoplay videos or flashing gifs on a page – those just piss everyone off. But think about it… what subtle things can we do on a page, that will break down the walls of the reader’s tunnel?

Or if you like, what can you do on your page, to turn a tunnel into a funnel? Food for thought.

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