Random Thoughts: A Mindful Miscellany

from Marcus Wynne

The Internet Ate My Podcasts, So A Post On Situational Awareness Training

with 10 comments

As we curmudgeons are prone to do, I neglected to pay attention to my podcast platform, which apparently came down on 1 November along with all my pithy collection of hums and hahs over the last few months.

Ah well.

Another person might be screaming about “Lost content!  Disaster, disaster Will Robinson!” But not this old codger.  It’s still in my head, and all three of you that followed the podcasts, well, stick around.  I may resurrect something similar.  The ease of production for the lazy man I is be most difficult to bypass.  Writing is hard work, and I do too much of it anyway.

I had this great podcast set up, all my notes ready to go, ready to pontificate for my deliberately chosen 17 minutes on novelty and pattern recognition (buzz words in the Tacti-cool community now!) and how cultivating the art of fucking up makes your path to mastery and expertise much simpler — I supposed I could use my Internet Ate My Podcasts experience as an example, but I’m too lazy.

I remember back in the late 80s and early 90s when I first started writing about situational awareness and Boyd’s OODA loop and how interesting it was to watch it catch on as a buzzword and then become a subject of serious study by tacticians.  I’m watching a similar process going on now with integrating cognitive neuroscience into real world training and use by tacticians, and I’m watching with a kind of fuddy duddy paternalistic enjoyment.  You go, young ‘uns!

Anyway I guess I’m stuck writing till I figure out whether to bore you with short videos or do podcasts again.  Any thoughts most welcome.

In the meantime, as I’ve been working on a project about enhancing situational awareness which has been my primary wheelhouse for 30 years or so, I dug up this old piece.  It’s useful, as all this cognitive neuroscience-y kinda lingo comes back into favor (or disfavor) in the tacit-cool community, to realize that the basis of a good sound and productive conversation is an agreement upon the meaning of certain words.  I STILL see all kinds of debate about what defines “situational awareness” — even some people using my original definition from an article back in the early 90s — but here’s something that most hard science researchers in the field of perception and cognition know (unlike some people who love the neuroscience buzzwords but don’t do the research) there actually IS a consensus definition of what constitutes situational awareness, defined and agreed upon by the organizations that lead the way in situational research (the aerospace industry in the US like NASA and ALL of the international space agencies, something like 17 nations…).

I’ve extracted from the detailed study (with permission from NASA, thanks Steve!) the definition, the explanation, etc. with the hopes that researchers in firearms and police science will look to partner with the larger science community instead of adopting only the pieces that suit them or help to sell their products/services.  A good start would be working with established and rigorously (science wise anyway) vetted definitions and academic studies.

For your consideration, Gentle Readers.  Now I’m back to figuring out how I can do this podcast thing so I don’t have to type so much….


In 1996, I published what may have been the first article in the popular “tactical/gun” press on John Boyd’s OODA loop as a model for maintaining situational awareness and decision making for personal combat. I presented a simplified version of Boyd’s elegant thinking and detailed expansion of the OODA loop, in a way that I felt, at the time, would be immediately usable by tacticians unfamiliar with the concept.

Sixteen years later, the OODA loop and Boyd’s work and how to apply it to personal combatives armed and unarmed are the subject of endless articles and internet forum debates and the concept is an integral part for most credible combative training systems.

This wasn’t the case in 1996, when most of the established firearms instructors were weaned on Cooper’s Color Code.  In several discussions with notable tacticians, I pointed out that the OODA loop didn’t necessarily replace the Color Code, but it certainly added an additional dimension for utilizing efficient information processing.

The  OODA loop concept took hold in the tactical community (it had long been part of combat aviation, military psychology and strategic planning) after other instructors and writers found utility in the simplified model and joined me in spreading the word.

So today knowledge of the OODA loop is expected in any serious tactical practitioner.

The concept of situational awareness, which I also introduced in the same article, has grown significantly as well.  Let me make clear I didn’t develop the idea, I took it from military psychology and combat aviation research and put the idea into the context of personal combat.  Situational awareness is a topic of serious study for the military; applying Boyd’s model to personal combat raised questions the military has long batted around:  What is situational awareness?  Can it be specifically defined and identified?  Is it an inherent trait or is it instilled?  And, most to the point, can it be taught in training?

Based on the research, experimentation, and field testing I’d been doing since the late 80’s on how to utilize accelerated learning, stress inoculation, and pre-conscious processing to recalibrate habitual baseline states to enhance performance under stress, I went on to share those concepts in another 1996 article SHOOTING WITH THE MIND’S EYE in which I stated my position:  yes, the components — the critical path of the cognitive process I defined as situational awareness — can be identified, and since those components can be identified they can then be enhanced and taught.

Among the organizations I shared this with was NASA. NASA is the lead agency for study and research of “situational awareness” and provides a clearing house for the various interested agencies like military aviation, the intelligence and law enforcement communities. I consulted with the Psychological Services Division of the Medical Sciences Branch of NASA.  My consultation focused on how to apply the blend of stress inoculation, accelerated learning, pre-conscious processing and scenario based training I’d developed to parts of the Astronaut Training Program.

One of controversial (at that time) positions I took, in discussion with the top military and space psychologists and psychiatrists in the world, was that situational awareness, in my experience as a trainer, was one part genetics, one part life experience, and one part training; and that situational awareness could be identified in prospective candidates, and further enhanced or taught (installed) into astronaut trainees who lacked the operational experience and training of the candidates who came in from the hard-core Department of Defense flow (ie fighter pilots, combat veterans, test pilots, etc.).

The polite (i.e. “official”) response was:  “That’s not our position  The area merits more study, but we tend to believe that situational awareness is in large part a skill you either have or you don’t; if you don’t, all the training in the world won’t give it to you.”

The unofficial response, over beers in a famous astronaut bar also trafficked by the US Naval Special Warfare community, was:  “Ah, bullshit.  You can’t teach that.”  And then a long pause:  “…but if you could…”

I wrote my consultation report and then went on to do other things, among them develop a training program for installing situational awareness subsequently adopted by the South African Police Service (who, at the time, had more officer-involved shootings monthly than the US had yearly) titled “Mental Conditioning for Close Combat” and also taught a significant number of personnel involved in close protection, military special operations, law enforcement, and private sector security on how to enhance their own brand of situational awareness.

Over the last thirty years, I’ve received hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and letters attesting to the effectiveness of the situational awareness and performance enhancement training program from former students operating in America and many other countries.

Anecdotal evidence, yes, but then, I never claim to be a scientist, and those calls and letters are all I ever needed to be assured that what I was doing was not only working in the training environment but translating directly into usefulness on the street and on the battlefield.

I shared that information with the popular tactical/gun press in an article about situational awareness published in SWAT Magazine in 2007.

In August 2010, 15 years after my initial consultation with NASA, the project managers I worked with in 1995 now are in charge of the entire unit, and were good enough to take my nine year old son on the VIP tour of the training facility.  Over lunch they told me, “Remember back in 95 when we were talking about situational awareness and human performance indicators?  Situational awareness?  We did a study you might find interesting.”

They sent me two documents detailing a study: “Human Behavior Performance Competencies” generated by NASA, and the ESA (European Space Agency).  What this study did was focus on specific aspects of human behavior and performance essential to survival in the space environment, with particular emphasis on long duration space travel.  One of the unprecedented products of the study is an easy to use matrix that identifies the human performance competency, the behavior, the behavioral markers, details and examples.

Situational awareness is one of the major human performance competencies identified.  This is the first time that the top scientists and researchers from the world-wide psychological research community have come to a consensus definition of situational awareness.

In order to include it, they had to break down the components of situational awareness as they defined it, as shown in the graphics posted above.

What NASA is doing with this is using these behaviors and traits as tools in the selection and assessment of astronauts and crew selection for long-duration missions; they continue to add rigorously reviewed scientific studies on these traits.  They also work in conjunction with their Training Division to enhance training to develop these attributes, and completed a peer-reviewed study and presentation on the effectiveness and implications of training situational awareness.

This can be an extremely useful model with extraordinary implications for law enforcement and tactical training.

There are two major competencies identified by NASA as principal sub-components of “situational awareness.”  They are:

a.              Maintenance of an accurate perception of the situation; and

b.              Processing of information

Perceiving the situation in an accurate (usable) perception and processing that information adds up to a state of “situational awareness.”

What are some of the implications for situational awareness training?

If a behavior can be identified and deconstructed into components, it can then be reconstructed and woven into a training program.

One of the differences between this extremely useful model and what I’ve been doing is that I combine processing of information with the maintainance of the accurate perception; like the OODA loop, it’s all one flow from my perspective.  Without efficient processing of useful information in the moment, it’s not possible to perceive a given situation, especially a dynamic situation like combat, accurately.  So the two elements are interwoven.

My model for training and enhancing situational awareness focused on improving perception and enhancing cognition while under stress.  These are the principal components of the baseline state of relaxed alertness and situational awareness as I’ve trained it:

  • Vision skills (enhanced use of the full range of visual cues, which leads to enhancement of other sensory inputs i.e. hearing, etc., as well as designing training that enhances visual processing in the neurology),
  • Sensory cue acuity (enhanced use of all senses in conjunction along with pattern recognition templates fed into the other-than-conscious mind)
  • State management (managing the internal representation and physiology in such a manner as to enhance efficient processing of information)
  • Cognitive model (drawing critical path pattern-recognition models from high performers and installing directly into other than conscious mind of students)
  • Time distortion (how to manage and enhance processing of information and utilize time distortion to maximize personal processing time of incident-essential data).

So over twenty years, I’ve focused on simple exercises to install the skill, and test it immediately under stress and in open-ended scenarios to cement the skill in use under immediate onset threat to life stress.  In my last post, I shared a simple exercise that installs one small attribute of the larger skill set.

What I find most exciting about this study is the model NASA’s best researchers came up with; in the same way the OODA loop is a model for decision making and maintaining situational awareness, the Human Behavior and Performance Competency Model is a model for breaking out the components of situational awareness as they define it.

So while some pieces of their definition might not necessarily meet the needs of personal combat, the model of the matrix they’ve created makes a template for us to fill in with the working competencies drawn from personal combat.

So – shall we create one?

Upcoming posts:

Part Two:  The Matrix

Part Three:  Training the Jedi

Extracts used with permission from NASA.  All other content copyright by Marcus Wynne (as is all material on this blog — please respect that…)


Written by marcuswynne

November 10, 2017 at 12:51 am

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10 Responses

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  1. Marcus, Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience. The area is under-addressed in the firearms/self defense community and where it is addressed it is under appreciated. Your blog/writings/podcast are valuable insightful and filled with things that can be applied even if I am sometimes at my limit of understanding when processing the information or ideas. Please keep up the good work. The written and podcast format is my preference as it allows more depth of processing while also being brief enough to not be cumbersome. If I can help in any way please let me know if only for feedback from a perpetual student seeking more complete understanding of complex issues. Best regards.


    November 10, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    • Hey Mike I don’t do it for the appreciation (or am I deterred by the lack thereof) I count my success in lives saved, and dude, by that measure, I am a very very wealthy man. But thanks for your kind thoughts.


      November 11, 2017 at 2:51 pm

  2. Please continue the series. Eager to digest what you have produced.


    November 10, 2017 at 10:11 pm

  3. Hello Marcus,

    Sorry to hear about the podcasts. I’m your long-time follower who checks this blog almost every day.
    I think the podcast format is great, loved the practical exercises.

    Thank you for all the great work and please keep them coming.

    P.S. I hope we’ll see the continuation of Wylde’s saga someday. I re-read the first two books like five times already 🙂

    Best regards,


    November 11, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    • Thanks Igor. I’m anticipating a much needed shift in priorities soon so I’ll be able to get back to finishing up WYLDE. I’m actually going through the first two books, editing them closely, and then combining those with the last new book. So it’s a massive tome, but good reading. But not for a few months yet.


      November 11, 2017 at 2:50 pm

  4. Marcus yes please keep the discussion going; it’s not only under-addressed and unappreciated but even dismissed by folks – including trainers – who don’t understand it.

    In Harms Way

    November 11, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    • Hey dude, it’s an old story. It’s too hard (or used to be) to teach, it requires soft skills to be understood and practiced to competency by the instructors, and it’s not as fun as shooting thousands of rounds in battle rattle and telling people they now be prepared to go out and do battle with the Unholy. Hang in, carry the torch, save some lives.


      November 11, 2017 at 11:37 pm

  5. […] Wynne has posted another piece on situational awareness training at his blog, Random Thoughts: A Mindful Miscellany, where he defines it and approaches the […]

  6. Me (Random Filipino): I no longer do The Book of Faces and haven’t for many years. Once I saw how that information was being purposed behind the scenes I took down my very popular page (it was one of the few places on the internet where you could participate in a civil conversation with people like Loren Christenson, Mike Jaco, Claude Werner, and some talkative Filipino dude). These days, since I embrace my curmudgeon-hood, I tend to communicate with my friends via e-mail or text message, unless it’s like Uber Secret Ninja Stuff in which I rely on Proton Mail, Hushmail, Telegraph or Signal. Highly recommended by the way. Great sound quality on Signal.

    But I digress.

    One of my mentors and friends was and remains a world-class master instructor, albeit retired these days. His name is Ed Lovette, and among other things he was the lead tactics and firearms instructor for an Other Government Agency that rhymes with Cis-Identified Athletes or, in the olden days, the Christians in Action. He was one of the very few instructors in the 70s and 80s that were interested in expanding the knowledge base of his students (and enhancing their survival) by working on the whole concept of situational awareness as a SKILLSET TO BE TAUGHT.

    Here’s a few extracts from our e-mail exchange:

    “Yessir agree SA can be taught. What I found over time was that, as with all personal protection skills, the hard part was to get a person to consistently apply the training. The committment to do this seemed stronger in some people than in others, especially those I called the daydreamers, the people who simply do not have the mental discipline to consistently pay attention to what is going on around them. Another thing, which I think you focused on in the early days, was that women tend to be better at this than men. Have you done any followup study on that aspect of SA training?”

    [general commentary: — there are gender differences in the brain, most notably for this discussion the corpus collosum is on average 50% larger in women than in men. That’s the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres and is indicated in the processing of nonverbal cues in communication. It’s directly related to women to enhance their brains to better sense the communicationsof the non-verbal, i.e. pre-verbal infants and small children. Yes, women in general are better at men in reading non verbals.

    “The discussion you and I had a long time ago was what prompted me to take the direction I have. Teaching it as a “conscious” level skill separately and as something they have to consciously work at in my opinion based on the research and my experience doesn’t work long term UNLESS you create a fundamental (and now measurable) change in HOW their brain processes information. Environment is a major factor in creating and maintaining baseline situational awareness and when you got soft students coming in who spend most of their time in soft environments it’s hard to get it to stick.

    So now I focus on changing their brains and resetting the baseline so they don’t even know they’re that aware – consciously.

    This is also the reason I insist on occasionally venturing out of my 60-something comfort zone because you really do need constant updating of your reality maps to be at peak situational awareness. It’s how I noticed the street level shifts reflected in lack of civility, increased street crime and factionalism. And of course having bad people around who don’t like me helps keep me tuned up lol. There are no safe places unless you make them so and that’s what situational awareness does.”


    “I don’t have any formal training in how the brain works so I just kept using the students as guinea pigs until I started getting the results I was looking for. What seemed to get their attention was to start out with criminal assault awareness. They seemed to be able to grasp a purse snatching or a strong arm robbery better than a terrorist kidnap, assassination or suicide bomber which I don’t think they believed would/could ever happen to them (twinky denial syndrome). Once you get them paying attention in the parking lots and shopping malls, it seems like an easier stretch to get them to pay attention to the pre-op indicators of a really bad guy who can permanently fuck their life up. Like the tough old patrol sarge who stayed after his young recruits to “stay alert-stay alive” it helped to have a manager who frequently reminded our folks in the field to do the same thing. We had always preached good operational security but everybody had to learn to overlay that with good personal security practices as well once terrorism reared its ugly head…”


    “Yeah as you know I followed your model dude. Because until recently with the innovations in neuro technology it was the only method that produced reliable results.

    You really were the pioneer in building that for training — incorporating scenarios with live role players as a fundamental block in qualification was your innovation and only then did the Secret Service and the other Feds follow suit.  I remember talking with you about that after Bob  Duggan and I talked about how immersion and scenario were essential to long term retention.

    You got me researching Langlois which was way ahead of all the guys bleating about Previolence indicators — and that led me to Ekman and the rest of my research into nonverbal cues.

    So you’re seen and appreciated, Eduardo. Your patient tutelage of my 30 year old self (how did you NOT shoot me for terminal dumbass lol?) saved my skin and more than a few others.  You got a hell of a legacy in what you’ve passed on and the lives you’ve saved

    General commentary: [Bob Duggan founded ESI Executive Security International which was one of the first to offer a truly government level course in protection operations to the private sector. His training design was notable in many ways including utilizing Paul Ekman’s work in UNMASKING THE FACE at about the same time the Secret Service was just starting to utilize the same material.

    Bill Langlois was a heroic undercover cop in San Francisco’s Decoy Unit. He survived 262 violent assaults (muggings) as part of an extended undercover operation to target predators preying on senior citizens and the handicapped. His Book SURVIVING THE AGE OF FEAR is long out of print but must reading not only for historical value but for the street level expertise of someone who dealt with (often before his cover team showed up) 262 full blown predatory attacks on the street.

    Cheers, m


    November 11, 2017 at 11:47 pm

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