Cognitive Tunneling

From Weekly I/O#72

Cognitive Tunneling: When our brains abruptly shift from a relaxed state to high alert, we tend to focus too much on the most obvious stimuli and overreact.

Book: Smarter Faster Better

The focus range in the brain operates like a spotlight. When we are relaxed, this spotlight dims its intensity and scans randomly to conserve cognitive energy.

However, in emergencies or unexpected situations, like when our boss suddenly throws a question at us during a meeting, the spotlight is forced to concentrate its beam. The challenge is that it doesn't necessarily focus on what's most important.

In such scenarios, the brain tends to believe that a brighter, more focused spotlight is better, even if it's not aimed where it should be. This phenomenon of the brain shining the light haphazardly is called "cognitive tunneling."

Cognitive tunneling occurs when our brains transition suddenly from relaxed automation to panicked attention, which explains why relaxed drivers might slam on their brakes when they suddenly realize there's a red light ahead. Once in a cognitive tunnel, we lose our ability to direct our focus effectively. Instead, we focus on the easiest and most obvious stimulus and overreact without common sense.

To mitigate the effects of cognitive tunneling, we can equip ourselves with mental models. Mental models help us better understand unexpected problems by simplifying unfamiliar situations into concepts we already know. As a result, we can more quickly recognize when something is off and respond appropriately.

If you want to learn more about mental models, The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts is a good starting point.

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