Blog post

Everyday Awareness and Schrödinger’s Cat

January 19, 2018


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 dorking out 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.

Schrodinger’s Cat Photo Credit Martha Knox, used without permission, but it’s really great work.

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 it look it 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.

Stimulation Overload

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 entirely 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 i nformed 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 define what 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.

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 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?

This is the Back corner of a restaurant. Just behind are the bathrooms. What are the pros and cons?

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.

ISG Team

By Aaron

Aaron is an 8-year veteran of the U.S.A.F. who’s passionate about creating a legacy of skill and resilience. Aaron’s experience includes time working in military law enforcement, as a member of the Air Force’s Battlefield Airmen as a weather technician, and as an avid student and outdoorsman.

His interests include 80-series Land Cruisers, shooting, rescue medicine, lock-sport/security, escape and evasion, urban exploration, fitness, environmental science, emergency management, and criminology.

Aaron now works for the nation’s leading science agency, and works to encourage outdoor adventure and to help bring experiential knowledge from the ISG team to the community.

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  • Weekend Knowledge Dump- February 9, 2018 | Active Response Training

    February 9, 2018 at 11:45 am

    […] Everyday Awareness and Schrödinger’s Cat […]

  • Sam

    February 9, 2018 at 9:33 pm

    That’s not what schrodinger’s cat means. The thought experiment included not an either/or about the radioactive vial, but rather that the radioactive vial would absolutely break at an unknown future time. Since the cat was guaranteed to die, the thought experiment was meant to derail the standard quantum model which claimed that an future eventuality had already occurred. In this thought experiment, the cat was thought to be simultaneously dead and alive.

    1. Aaron

      February 9, 2018 at 10:38 pm

      Hi Sam,
      Thanks for your comment. We’ve clarified that on your recommendation. Thank you for taking the time to make this point and we hope you enjoyed the rest of the article.


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