You are constantly bombarded with stimuli. Everything you see, hear, feel, touch smell, taste and think is firing off little triggers in your head, each demanding attention from your conscious mind. Much of this input is filtered out so that you can cope more effectively with what is actually going on.
Any stimulus that you need to achieve a goal or activity is known as a ‘Task Relevant Cue’. Anything that does help you is ‘Task-Irrelevant’. Researchers have discovered that when your mental arousal level increases, there is a narrowing of perception that allows you to focus more effectively. This narrowing of focus means that your mental filters are working for you so that the only cues you accept are those relevant to your task. This increases mental activity in the area that you need it and improves performance.
However, if arousal continues to rise, attention can become so narrow that task-relevant cues are also filtered out. This can stop important information being made available to the brain and so reduce overall effectiveness.
The classic example of this phenomenon was demonstrated by Prof Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris in an experiment that has become almost folklore. The experiment was for spectators of a basket ball game to count how many time the people wearing white passed the ball. During the game, a gorilla ran across the pitch and then left the court. A surprising number of people failed to see the gorilla because their focus was acutely on the ball movement and the count.
The figure below shows the arousal of optimum performance, below which non-relevant cues are included and above which key information is missed.
The key is to your extend your optimal range of arousal by training so that when you do get forced into an arousal level that is higher than normal, you still have the capacity to cope.
Consider a simple model of mental capacity. You have a comfort zone, a stretch zone and a panic zone. Your comfort zone is where you are able to process both task-relevant and non-relevant cues easily because you are familiar with the stimulus being received. The stretch zone is where you are no longer comfortable with the stimulus but are coping. Finally, when the input is too high you go into a panic zone where you no longer function logically.
I believe that the stretch zone is probably fairly fixed for most people. Those that get overwhelmed easily due to mental capacity will more than likely get overwhelmed in another. This is anecdotal but seems to be a fairly consistent observation following years of teaching martial arts, sailing and rock climbing.
The key then to increasing someone’s ability to cope with increased stimulus is to increase their Comfort zone. We can do this with training and exposure to environments and situations that take the person out of their Comfort zone into the upper region of Stretch without going into Panic. The more time a person spends in their Stretch zone, the larger their Comfort zone becomes and the less likely they are to Panic!
Training in any new activity is useful for moving people out of their Comfort zone. Adventurous training in particular is beneficial and a stalwart training approach of the military. The main aim is to expose a person to increasing levels of perceived risk without necessarily placing them in harms way. Frequent exposure to such perceived risk will increase that Comfort zone and so make Panic less likely and also ensure that they have the increased capacity to perform when the stimulus level increases.
Dare to Aspire