Tunnel vision: what is it and what are the causes?

Tunnel vision is a particular phenomenon that affects the ability to perceive stimuli in our environment. It is relatively common that when we are in a state of marked psychophysiological stress, we pay exclusive attention to what relates to the main task, threat or concern that is affecting us.

In this article we will describe what is tunnel vision and what are its causes. To do this, we will do a brief review of cognitive theory on the different modalities of attention, and we will explain the difference between the concept of tunnel vision that we use in psychology and the use that is made of it in medicine. .

    Attention as physiological activation

    Attention is a broad psychological function and, as such, the alterations that affect it can lead to a wide variety of phenomena. So, for example, if we view attention as the ability to select a stimulus and focus our cognitive resources on it, we can identify disturbances of that function in schizophrenia or manic episodes.

    They have also been described alterations related to attention as concentration (Like mental absence and temporary deviation), like alertness (which in generalized anxiety disorder has the character of “hypervigilance”), like expectations (a relevant aspect in psychosis) and like activation physiological, associated with the experience of stress.

    The phenomenon of tunnel vision is part of this last area of ​​analysis of attentional processes. However, this is an ambiguous concept that has not only been used in the field of psychology, but has also been discussed in tunnel vision in medical contexts, particularly in ophthalmology.

      What is tunnel vision?

      From the point of view of cognitive psychology, tunnel vision is impaired attention that occurs in situations of intense stress, Especially when you feel a sense of threat. However, this does not always correspond to reality, but some people are more prone than others to tunnel vision.

      Specifically, it has been proposed that introverts have a greater tendency than extroverts to tunnel vision, if we understand these two constructs as defined by Eysenck: as manifestations of the basal level of activation of the cerebral cortex. Thus, introverts are more prone to this phenomenon due to their higher level of general anxiety.

      Tunnel vision is also less common in children and the elderly than in middle-aged people; this is also due to the differences in cortical activation. On the other hand, of course, experience of objectively threatening situations for a given person, they increase the likelihood of tunnel vision.

      In the general medical context, the concept of “tunnel vision” is commonly used to refer to the loss of the ability of peripheral vision, as in glaucoma. People with this disorder can only see clearly the central part of their visual field; from this follows the perception with the approximate shape of a tunnel.

      however, in attention psychology, the term has a more abstract character; many experts include not only the visual alterations caused by stress, but also the narrowing of attention that can be affected in the same way to the other senses. It should be noted that the ear is almost as important as sight for humans.

        The causes of this phenomenon

        Tunnel vision understood as an attentional phenomenon it is due to specific hypervigilance, i.e. selective attention stimuli associated with a potential threat to safety or survival. This allows us to respond more easily to stimuli that we consider relevant, but reduces the ability to perceive other factors in the situation.

        Cortical activation is largely dependent on the release into the bloodstream of stress hormones, the most important of which are corticosteroids. This happens more markedly, the greater the perception of stress, the more intense the physical and mental activity she performs and the more demanding the demands of the situation.

        Many cognitivist attention models focus on the fact that our attentional resources are limited, so we can only focus our perception on one or the other stimulus by dividing these capacities differently. In this sense, it is relevant to remember that there is different types of attention: selective, focused, divided …

        When tunnel vision occurs, our sight, and often the rest of the senses as well, focus only on the stimuli that we associate with what worries us the most. This leads to a very marked reduction in our probability of perceiving other stimuli correctly, decreasing the quality of our behavior.

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