Everyday Awareness and Schrödinger's Cat

Awareness is more than sitting in the back corner or knowing where the exits are. We go beyond the clichés to bring you *actionable* situational awareness.

December 30, 2019


How often do you see someone and panic internally, trying to remember what their name was? Do you ever try and subtly get a friend to get them to spill the information you meant to memorize?

In this installment, we're going to discuss the difference between "awareness" and "applied situational awareness". We will look at how multiple aspects of awareness must be merged to create a actionable, useful ability.

We will discuss ways to sharpen your awareness, to actively engage with your surroundings, and how to use the information we take in to facilitate predictive actions in others, as well as how to be more mindful in general.

First Blush

A lot of us cruise through life without ever really becoming victims... at first blush, that might look like luck.

If you really look at it though, there aren't that many people out there who are really, truly bad. Most of the violence or crime we encounter is interpersonal/social, and easily avoidable. Even in rough neighborhoods, you're as likely to get away without injury as not if you can manage space, treat people normally, and be aware of your surroundings. So, when instructors say things like be "aware of your surroundings", it's expected that people around them will know what they mean. But do we?

The truth is, Awareness is "Schrödinger's Cat" of the tactical world. In Schrödinger's thought exercise he imagined that if a cat was in a box with radioactive material that would eventually break, the cat had an equal chance of being alive or dead. From the outside, we would know that there were only two outcomes at any given time: the cat is alive, or it's dead, but it couldn’t be both. He speculated the outcomes were  mutually exclusive.

Schrödinger was wrong as his theory applied to quantum mechanics, and we're being dorks here, but it would be wrong here, too. Here's why:

Someone who is actively paying attention and remembering the building layout, the hostess's name, and the daily special, but who has their head buried in their phone looks less aware than say, a bouncer who's not really paying attention to people at all, but has his head up and is looking around.

In reality, awareness can be active and passive, but until it is 'challenged', it's either "on" or "off" to the observer.

In this way, looking like you're paying attention influences whether you're seen as perceptive, regardless of how aware you are, and even if you're paying attention, if you don’t look like you are, people will assume you’re not.

Applied Situational Awareness

Awareness is the process of actively absorbing information from your surroundings. This topic gets more lip service than just about anything else in the training/self-reliance world; "situational awareness" is a common topic, and it's universally regarded as necessary to make sure you don't end up a victim.

But is that true? ...More importantly, is that the limitation of "SA"?

The answers are yes, and no respectively, but what we're interested in is Applied Situational Awareness.

Applied SA is like the quark of the mental world. It's the thing all other things are built from. ASA happens when you use information that you've been gathering your entire life to apply to situations you encounter on a daily basis. It's also important to note that awareness - when taken to its extreme - results in fixation. Fixation is extremely detrimental to your overall awareness. Think about it like concentrating on something close, versus taking a broad view.

Think about that for a second.

The more information you take in, the more capable you'll be of making situations work to your advantage, but this requires being able to 'focus' quickly as information presents itself. Like a language, the more words you know, the easier it is to learn. You can make sense of the information you're taking in. Applied Situational Awareness is like this: the more information you can process, the more informed your decisions are.

With that said, what we want to do is establish a baseline, and then look for things that don't belong. Once we've established that, we can take a closer look at those things and start collecting information.

Transitional Spaces

There are a number of articles on this subject, and while there are number of examples of what transition spaces might be, there isn't much of a definition. The reason is it's incredibly hard to definewhat makes a transitional space. Defining the space is less important than how it affects you, however. What we're concerned with are places that:

  • Limit our visual field along lines of approach.
  • Limit our mobility, or require that we follow a predetermined path.
  • Divide our attention, or require that we devote our entire attention to a specific task.
  • Examples: Elevators, doorways fountains, vending machines, bathrooms, ATM machines, Car doors, Drive-Thru, etc.

Transition in this context refers more to our transitioning between actions than being in a physical place. Thinking of it like this turns the attention from the space we're occupying, and towards how that space forces us into an action... For example in a hall with doors on either end, the hall forces you to open a door (taking an action) to leave. So for our purposes at ISG, a transitional space is all about how it affects your ability to move... not defining an actual place.

Applied Awareness and Angles

Angles, like posture, is something we will continue to return to at ISG. Angles apply to everything from grappling to driving, and transitional spaces are no exception. If you understand how angles and awareness interface, you're well on your way to understanding the deep, unifying principles of ISG.

When considering angles:

We want the greatest amount of visual information with a minimum amount of exposure. It's not all about having the back corner seat. Most of us aren't Wild Bill Hickok, and if McCall hadn't shot him in Nutall and Mann's, he could have done it some other time in some other place. Keep that in mind.

Back on topic: Let's say our priority is to see as far as possible along avenues of approach... For example, consider our field if view if we park directly in front of a store. Can we see around the edge of the building? How about if we park further back?

Check out the following photos. Which would provide you with the best advantages and why?

‍This is the Back corner of a restaurant. Just behind are the bathrooms. What are the pros and cons?
This spot is just off the back corner. There's a solid wall to the right, and a brick half-wall as you look to the door. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Kim's Game and Applying Awareness

There's a way of testing and building your awareness: a game called KIM, or "Keep in Memory". While I learned this as part of the military skill set, I was surprised to learn in researching for this that it originally came from a Kipling novel, in which the protagonist, Kim, uses the game as part of his training to be a spy. Cool.

Back to the future: the object of the game is to notice as much about a given area as you can. For example:

  • Look at the vehicles parked out front.
  • What stickers or custom plates do they have?
  • Look at the people surrounding you. Are they telling a story about themselves by the way they dress, their choice in food or drink, their tattoos, or their equipment? Pay particular attention to shoes.
  • Look at the interior of the building and try to memorize aspects about it. How many steps does it take to cross it? What color are the walls? Are there paintings?

Put this information together and see if you can draw correct conclusions.

Use those conclusions as an excuse to start a conversation. Worst thing that happens is you're wrong in front of a stranger. Either way, you get a chance to practice perception and apply it to social interaction.

Another thing that bears mentioning is this: often, being courteous of others puts you in a better position to gather information. Holding the door puts people in front of you. It gives you a chance to look around without looking weird, as well as verbally greet people, which is both polite and disarming.

Awareness is the philosophical backbone of everything we teach here. We sincerely hope that this helps to change the way you think about awareness. It's a truly powerful tool that can be cultivated easily, and applied in everything from emergencies to social situations.


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