Target Fixation - What Not to Look Out For

Wikipedia defines the term 'Target Fixation' thus - Target fixation is a process by which the brain is focused so intently on an observed object that awareness of other obstacles or hazards can diminish. Also, in an avoidance scenario, the observer can become so fixated on the target that they will forget to take the necessary action to avoid it, thus colliding with the object.

Target fixation is a negative response that can affect many day to day activities including golf, tennis, skiing, mountain bike riding and motorcycling - virtually any activity where where the participant is penalised for missing his or her target.

Golfers are a good example as they are particularly susceptible to the vagaries of poor concentration and the penalties that arise from target fixation. The golfer stands on the tee, ready to drive the ball deep down the fairway. To the right is a large dam and the golfer knows that if his ball finds it's way into to the water he will incur a penalty and may 'lose' the hole.

He becomes so fixated on the negative target and of not driving the ball into the dam, that his concentration on the positive target, the fairway, is virtually nil.

The golfer is doomed from the start. His concentration, his target fixation on the dam and his subconscious all conspire against him and as sure as certain he plonks the ball right in the middle of the water.

positive and negative targets
Target Fixation and Driving a Car

The penalty for target fixation in golf is a lost ball. The penalty for drivers may be buckled four wheel drive vehicles and broken bones.

Many rear end collisions can be attributed to target fixation. The eyes lock onto the red brake lights of the car in front, the driver panics, having never anticipated an escape route and slams into the car in front.

Had the driver observed the whole line of forward traffic and anticipated interruptions to the flow then that driver may well have been on the brakes before the car in front.

Our hands are trained from an early age to follow our eyes.

Whether we drive in tight traffic, on long outback highways or over rocky four wheel drive tracks the art of seeking out positive rather than negative targets will make us better drivers.

Reacting Normally under Stress

Accidents and mishaps occur when we fail to react normally in stressful situations. They arise because we are unprepared for new developments in the driving environment

Highway drivers need to constantly scan the verges and sides of the road. The road is an ever changing scenario and the brain requires constant information updates so it can be prepared for arising developments.

Many people don't look far enough ahead when driving on highways. After the brain has absorbed the facts about the road surface and assimilated any information about potholes etc. it is time to see the bigger picture.

The bigger picture includes the bends and dips of the road all the way to the visual vanishing point. These bends and dips usually correspond to the surrounding countryside which is where most of the danger on Australian roads arises.

Animals wander on and off the road surface, especially around water. Being aware of this means being prepared.

Big trees on the side of the road or oncoming trucks are just obstacles that require a mental notation. The tree won't move so there is no need to focus on it once it has been locked into the mental picture of the driving environment.

The truck is a moving obstacle that we need to constantly monitor and recheck position but only in the context of constantly updating our brain to our situation.

We certainly don't want to target fixate on the centre of his grill because that is where we may end up.

This is especially important at night when our vision is greatly reduced and a set of headlights become the most available target.

Avoiding target fixation and consequently avoiding accidents is a matter of constant assessment of the driving environment and the constant notation of dangerous elements and the planning of escape routes.

Target Fixation and Four Wheel Driving

When we leave the bitumen and head out onto the gravel roads, sand tracks and rocky trails of outback Australia the need to develop this constantly adaptive mental image of our environment is equally important - especially on gravel roads.

Vehicles lose traction and move around on the loose surface offered by gravel. Our need to be aware of our surroundings, the turns and camber (the way the road 'leans'), dips, potholes and washouts is vital.

It is counter-productive to concentrate on the mere 20 metres ahead (target fixation) that the vehicle is about to negotiate.

We need to drive to a 'bigger picture' and see the whole road ahead and it's surrounds as the target.

Once this ability is developed the journey becomes smoother and more relaxed. Anticipation and forward planning means we are able to make the necessary judgements to overcome surprises and compromising situations.

Of course this mental imagery happens in mere nano-seconds and is really a subconscious action. The fact that we may be covering ground at 110 kilometres per hour means our environment is in a state of constant change and our perceived route is also fluid and constantly altered.

Driving on difficult, rocky terrain presents much the same scenario. If we focus too much on each individual rock we have to negotiate we are unable to develop a rhythm for the course and anticipate the best line of travel. We end up bouncing from one obstacle to the next.

It sounds tiring but in effect it is actually a more relaxing way to travel. Target fixation is stressful and focusses on negative imagery. By developing a keen sense of our route and environment we begin to understand and control it. We can relax our 'white knuckle' grip on the steering wheel, rid ourselves of 'white line fever' (target fixation) and enjoy the ride.

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