A couple of years ago I visited a friend in Oakland, California. For those who are not familiar with Oakland, it is not considered a particularly salubrious area of the country, having one of the top five highest rates of violent crime in the US. I had just arrived and we were walking towards the house when I heard four loud bangs in quick succession. I carried on walking, blithely unconcerned, until I realised that everyone else had stopped dead. I thought, “Hang on… four bangs? No cabbages?”
I hadn’t suddenly gone insane. I live in a rural area, surrounded by acres and acres of cabbages. In order to stop them getting eaten by pigeons, the farmers use bird scarers: machines that make an almighty bang at random intervals. There are enough around my house that at times it sounds like a re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo. Over time, I have grown entirely immune to loud bangs. This is a perfectly healthy adaptation to my usual environment, as it stops me from suffering from unnecessary panic attacks or wanting to throttle a farmer. However, it is a bit of a disaster in an area where gun crime is common.
I always considered myself pretty good at that situational awareness stuff. Yet it took me at least half a minute to realise that someone was shooting a gun just down the road from me, because I’d taught myself to ignore that kind of noise.
It makes me wonder how many ‘abnormal’ things I have taught myself to ignore. For instance, where I live people stand ridiculously close to each other when waiting in line. It used to drive me demented, until I got used to it. Would I now allow a stranger to get too close without registering it? I walk past people huddled in the shrubbery wielding shotguns on a regular basis, as duck hunting is a popular sport here. Would I notice someone doing the same in the middle of a city park? Would I notice it quickly enough?