I was ready. At least I thought I was.
Over the years I’ve had six martial art instructors and attended seminars with world-renowned martial art figures. I developed a well-rounded skill base, was athletic enough to jump over the hood of a car and never tired of sparring.
But when the time came to actually defend myself, I was lacking the one skill that could have saved me from being forced to the floor and having my arms tied behind my back with my own black belt. This ironic twist of fate that sent me on a mission to complete the self-defense puzzle.
Many martial art gyms sell their programs as “self-defense” training. They proficiently teach various forms of striking, kicking, and grappling and yet do not incorporate situational awareness into their teaching. I don’t believe that a self-defense curriculum is complete without this essential element. In fact, situational awareness is possibly one of the first skills that should be scientifically broken down for the student to master.
What is Situational Awareness?
Situational awareness is a term used within policing, military, and security circles.
The term is also used loosely around the dinner table. Cousin Jane recounts how her iPhone was stolen by two hoodlums that “came out of nowhere”. At this point uncle Wally clears his voice and lowers his glasses to the tip of his nose. The table quietens as the man who guarded the local library gates in 1957 against an imminent communist invasion is about to offer some sage security advice. “You need to be more aware” he tells the family. But, how do you actually do this, and why is it necessary? Let’s examine the mechanics of situational awareness.
There are several definitions of the concept, which differ in various contexts.
On the battlefield, senior officers will use the concept when referring to the position of friendly and enemy troops. In the health and safety field, it is used when briefing workers such as forklift drivers.
I will define it in personal safety terms. What this means is how a potential Peter Parker needs to get to work and home safely on a day to day basis.
For our purposes: Situational awareness is the use of the sensory system to scan the environment with the purpose of identifying threats in the present or projecting those threats into the near future.
The National Research Council (1998) refers to three hierarchical phases in the situational awareness process.
3 Levels Of Situational Awareness
Perception of key elements in the environment.
Comprehension of the current situation
Projection of the future situation
We will now discuss the first two levels of Situational Awareness.
In other words:
- You use your sensory system to identify something unusual in your immediate environment.
- You interpret that thing as a threat.
- Or you anticipate that there are signs of a threat in the imminent future.
How to Practice Situational Awareness
Principle 1: Use the Sensory System to Detect Things Out of the Ordinary
In order to perceive a threat, we need to go back to the five senses. Or maybe not just the five senses. According to Professor Barry Smith of London’s Institute of Philosophy, neuroscientists have dismissed Aristotle’s famous statement that we have five senses. The truth is we have between 22 and 33 senses.
Use All Of Your Senses
Apart from the usual five senses, we are familiar with, there is a range of senses functioning all the time that we are not consciously aware of. For example, there are our senses of proprioception and kinesthesia. These senses tell us how our body is positioned in space. Whether it is moving, and in which direction. Our senses are continuously interpreting information via the process of adaptation and amplification.
Heighten Your Senses With Situational Awareness Training
It’s also worth knowing that situational awareness, powered by the senses can be improved and refined with training. In 1949 psychologist Donald Hebb described the theory of how brain pathways are developed through regular repetition. Today Hebb’s theory is commonly explained as follows: “Neurons that fire together wire together”. In other words, the sensory system, which is all about nerves, gets better at what it is doing with continuous practice.
5 Day to Day Steps For Improving Your Sensory System:
When you transition from one environment to another, STOP! As you step from the parking lot into your office or out of a bus or train, pause for a few seconds and let your senses take in the scene.
Who is moving and who is standing still? What sounds do you hear close to you and what sounds register in the distance? Are there any specific smells in the area? What is the temperature like against your face and arms? Is there anything in the environment that strikes you as out of the ordinary, or doesn’t seem to belong?
Criminals often create subconscious “tells” that they are up to no good via their body language.
One of the most famous examples of this behavior led to the capturing and conviction of the Boston bombers who set off two bombs at the Boston marathon in 2013. After assembling witness statements and perusing hours of video footage, it was the unusual body language of the bomber in the white cap that helped to tie the case together.
2. Spot Something New Each Day
As you follow that same route to work that you have been traveling for years; try to spot something new each day that you have never noticed before.
3. Be Aware Of Temperature
Explore the sensation of temperature. You will notice that temperature sensitivity varies in different parts of your skin.
Try touching a surface right now with your palm. Now try the inside of your forearm and then just for fun, try your cheek. Don’t worry about what your family or that scowling lady on the bus commute think; you are in the process of enhancing your spider senses.
4. Be Aware Of Sound
Note that your sense of hearing tells you about distance. Of course, this is nothing new to dolphins, bats, and rats, who have been using sound for thousands of years to give them information about their surroundings.
As you read this; notice the sounds in your immediate area. Now let your hearing leave the room you are in and venture onto further parts of the environment. Finally, try to hear the sounds in the far distance.
5. Explore In Darkness
Become a night-time predator in your home. Turn off all the lights and navigate from room to room. You will discover that this is a multi-sensorial exercise. Touch, hearing, and special sensations become amplified. The more you do this, the more you own your nighttime space.
Principle 2: Use the Present Mind – Be Alert
As each day trundles on, our mind meanders through various states that can be measured in time. These states are often accompanied by internal dialogues and mental visualizations.
At some time during our day, we may think of an event that took place in the past. This could be in reaction to something you recently said: “Why did I just say that?”. Or it could be an enjoyable childhood memory, which is triggered by the sudden aroma of ice cream.
At other times in the day, our minds may project into the future. This could be a useful exercise like scenario planning. However, not all future thoughts are useful.
Worry is a common future projection. Our mental space is engrossed with horrors of what might happen.
In the book “Can I See Your Hands – A Guide to Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience, and Security” (2017), Dr. Gav Schneider notes that stress and anxiety; both of which are products of worry, reduce awareness. Criminals are drawn to people who are in this state. You’ve seen the look as a seven-year-old boy is engrossed in a cartoon, or more likely nowadays a game on a cell phone! His eyes are glazed and he doesn’t register sounds around him, or the voice saying for instance, “Pick up your toys!” To a criminal; a motorist or pedestrian in this state screams TARGET!
Sometimes our minds focus on the immediate present. Our minds are alert and tuned into our direct space. Our senses absorb the environment. Intuitive feelings are produced compelling us to act against danger or toward delight. Psychologists nowadays call this mindfulness.
In the old days when swords and beheadings took precedence over “chill rooms” and lifestyle coaches; the Japanese practiced the skill of “Zanshin”; a continuous state of relaxed awareness.
The Yellow State – Calm and Relaxed But Aware
In his Colour Codes of Awareness, Col. Jeff Cooper referred to this as the yellow state. In this state, we are calm and relaxed but aware of the environment.
The moment our minds lapse into the past or future, we lose situational awareness and drastically reduce our reaction time to threat. But it isn’t possible to stay in a state of concentrated focus all day long.
Gav Schneider explains that in a ten to 12-hour period, it is only possible to devote 30 minutes of intense mental focus. So how do we get the most out of these precious 30 minutes? Consider the following:
How To Improve Your Awareness
- Switch on your alertness when you sense something out of the ordinary, or when you have an uncomfortable “gut feel”. We will discuss intuition in greater detail in a subsequent post.
- Focus your mind when you are arriving at or leaving a location. Be especially alert when you are at road intersections or when your vehicle is stationary.
- Known crime hot spots or locations that provide an opportunity for criminal activity should make you instantly alert. This includes public transport areas, retail areas such as bottle stores, small checkout retailers, and automatic teller machines.
- Consciously switch on your alertness when using sharp objects or complex machinery. Your fingers will love you for this at the end of the day.
- Choose not to look at your cell phone at times when you need your situational awareness switched on. According to researcher Thomas Mackain, one out of every four vehicle accidents can be attributed to the use of a cell phone. At the risk of mixing Marvel and DC metaphors; cellphones are like kryptonite to your Spidey sense.
Check out these 5 situational awareness exercises that will fine-tune your awareness.
Principle 3: Move your RAS
Luckily, we don’t have to switch on our awareness and alertness all on our own. Mother nature has equipped us with our very own Reticular Activating System or RAS.
The RAS is much like our brain’s internal firewall.
- This system filters the thousands of bits of data that we absorb every second of the day and raises the relevant information into our consciousness.
- It is responsible for our state of arousal from sleep to wakefulness.
- When we are under threat it warns us.
- It stimulates us when we are interested in something and excites us when we interact with something desirable.
For example, Peter Parker hangs up his webs and plans to take Mary-Jane Watson out for a night on the town. To get ready, he pops into a local clothing retailer and gets himself a new red and blue t-shirt (apparently, he likes those colors).
During the course of his date, Peter is horrified. Wherever he looks; he sees guys wearing exactly the same t-shirt.
People in the policing or security field will be attuned to spotting people carrying weapons or driving suspiciously.
The reason is that the RAS is bringing that item of information into your consciousness. The good news is you can develop your RAS to raise the alarm when you are walking into potential danger.
How To Attune Your RAS To Keep You Safe:
- Note how specific activities around your home sound. For example, what do footsteps sound like as they approach your front door? What does the door sound like when it opens slowly? This might not need attention during your busy day, but it is very relevant at 2 am during the dark of the early morning.
- Armed criminals that target their victims in a public space need to conceal their weapons. This could be in the waistband of their trousers, under a shirt or jacket, in a pocket or even in a bag. They most likely need to wear shoes that they can easily run away in, and may add a cap or glasses to conceal their faces.
- Criminals aren’t good a playing poker. They often produce some type of sign that they have ill intent. This could be a person who deliberately averts his eyes when you greet him or someone who subconsciously taps his waist to check that his .38 revolver is still in his belt. In his book the “Gift of Fear”, international security expert Gavin de Bekker refers to these signs as pre-incident indicators. These are types of unnatural behavior that are indicators that an impending incident.
- Become familiar with the driving patterns in your neighborhood. At 07h30 in the morning, adults are on their way to work and children on their way to school. This produces a specific speed and style of driving that is different from a casual Sunday drive to pick up a copy of the Daily Bugle. Your RAS should alert you when a vehicle driving style is incongruent with the context of the day and time.
I am not attempting to get you to spot assassins under every skirting board. Paranoia is the enemy of situational awareness. The goal is that you sensitize yourself to danger signs in the environment, and then you take action. In other words, you are in your relaxed state of alertness, you become aware of something unusual via the sensory system and the RAS, and you say: “Uh oh, spidey sense is tingling!”. Now you need act. In my next blog I will examine some concrete action steps.
References & Further Reading
abcNews.com. (2016, April 26). Boston Bombing Day 2: How Authorities Found the Bombers in the Crowd. Retrieved from YouTube :
Barry, A. (2015, May 15). Timeline: How police caught the Boston bombers. Retrieved from theJournal.ie: https://www.thejournal.ie/timeline-dzhokhar-tsarnaev-boston-bombing-2106664-May2015/
BSR. (2017, March 19). Jeff Cooper’s Awareness Color Code Chart. Retrieved from BSR-inc: https://www.bsr-inc.com/awareness-color-code-chart/
Coaching What Works. (2016, August 7). Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together. Retrieved from YouTube :
Enkamp, J. (N.D. ). Zanshin – More Than You Think. Retrieved from Karate:
Mckain, T. (2014, MAy 6). The Effects of Cell Phones on Reaction Time. Retrieved from Prezi: https://prezi.com/lfkqdekrrmwe/the-effects-of-cell-phones-on-reaction-time/
National Research Council. (1998). Situational Awareness. In R. S. Pew, & S. A. Mavor, Modeling Human and Organizational Behavior: Application to Military Simulations (pp. 172 – 202). Washington DC: The National Academies Press.
Norman , J. (2019, February 26). Donald Hebb Formulates the “Hebb Synapse” in Neuropsychological Theory. Retrieved from Jeremy Norman’s HistoryofInformation.com: http://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=3902
Schneider, G. (2017). Can I See Your Hands! – A Guide to Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience, and Security. In G. Schneider, Can I See Your Hands! – A Guide to Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience and Security (pp. 59 -72). Irvine. Boca Raton: Universal Publishers.
Smith, B. C. (2011). 2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT? Retrieved from Edge: https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11677