Unleashing Your Sixth Sense: Building capacity and directing attention

- english jenny lord situation awareness situational awareness Jul 19, 2023

In this blog https://www.thehumandiver.com/blog/counterfactuals Gareth addressed some of the counterfactuals that come up when people are reading about an accident or incident. Two of those comments which come up often are “They should have paid more attention” and “They lacked situation awareness”.  These two are linked but by themselves are incredibly unhelpful statements. As Gareth pointed out, we can’t pay more attention; we have a finite capacity, and they didn’t lack awareness; it was just directed elsewhere.

So how can we improve these two things? The easiest way as divers is by increasing capacity and ensuring attention is directed in the right place at the right time.


Increasing capacity

This is the easiest of the two to deal with but takes time. The best way to increase capacity for problem solving is by reducing capacity elsewhere. Think of yourself as a computer- if the memory is full, the computer slows down. If we upgrade the CPU, the computer speeds up again. As divers we need to make as many processes as possible automatic. Things like buoyancy and finning should be second nature before we move on to more complicated things like navigation. New divers tend to struggle with new skills as they’re overloaded, trying to focus on a compass while also having to consciously adjust their buoyancy and think about fin kicks means often something gets missed, either they lose control of buoyancy, fin kicks stop being efficient or they stop noticing what direction they’re going in. If a diver encounters a problem and they don’t have the basics under control, that problem will be more difficult to solve because it will take capacity away. This is why problems can end up compounding; the problem takes away capacity for things like buoyancy, which means you end up going deeper than intended, which means you’re using more gas than planned but are too overloaded to remember to look at your gauge, which means you run out of gas!

Christian Sylvestre, Third Generation Safety: The missing piece


The difficulty with trying to increase our capacity is that we’re generally very bad judges of our own ability. This is why there are arbitrary rules in place like you need x number of dives before moving on to the next course. These aren’t to try and slow you down but to make you practise and move the knowledge you’ve learnt from one course from conscious thought into unconscious action. This is why doing the same dive in similar conditions 10 times doesn’t give you 10 experiences. We need variety to allow our brains to process new skills in new environments and situations. The only way to find out if we’re doing something well enough is by slowly adding on more task loading. However, “getting away with” or “just about managing” to do a skill doesn’t mean it’s now ok to continue and push on, the skills should be easy and done with precision and control, which is very difficult to judge on your own. It might not even be easy for a buddy to judge as it needs to be someone who can assess that you have full control and are within acceptable parameters.

The hardest question I get asked is “how many dives do I need to do before I’m ready for the next course?”. The answer is- I don’t know. All I can tell you is that you need to be comfortable with the skills and equipment from the previous course. I often ask people what problems they’ve had to deal with on dives. This helps me find out how much capacity they have for problem solving and decision making and gives me an idea of how much task loading you can deal with (ie. whether you’re likely to be ready to start the course or not).


Directing attention

Much like increasing capacity, directing attention to the right things takes practice and time. The first thing we can do is prioritise. What are the things most likely to cause problems? In diving we start with the basics- mind set, buoyancy, gas supply, no decompression limits (NDLs) (or bottom time/deco time) and surroundings. If you separate these into categories you can take the time to direct your attention to each one in turn by scanning. Imagine you have circles starting with you and moving outwards. So first- Self.

Self includes your current thoughts, your breathing, your trim and your finning. If you’re stressed, that takes away some capacity, so once you’ve become aware of any stress, think about the cause of it. Can that cause be removed? Have you reached a level where you need to end the dive? Is it something that can’t be dealt with now (“My buddy is really annoying me with his behaviour!”)? In which case, acknowledging that it’s annoying you but trying to put it aside for a debrief later may be your only option (something it is often easier said than done). How’s your breathing? Slow, calm, gentle? If not, why not? Can you control it? If you’re breathing hard because you’re working hard finning into a current, maybe now is the time to either get closer to the floor/wall/ wreck or hold onto something to get your breath back. Are you gliding smoothly through the water and can you stop finning without changing position or are you having to keep working to stay in trim/neutrally buoyant?

Equipment is next. Is it comfortable? Is it all in the correct place (a quick feel should confirm this and doesn’t need to be done on every scan, just if something has changed)? Check your gas supply; do you have the amount you would expect to have at this point on the dive? If it’s different, is it more or less than expected? If so, why might this be? Asking yourself why will help you to both remember how much gas you have (how many times have you looked at your gauge, put it away and then had to look again 2 minutes later when you realised you didn’t notice the actual number on the gauge?) and consider if this could be a future problem. What’s your computer showing? Are your NDLs or deco times within the limits you’d agreed on in the briefing? What’s your depth? How does that compare to the last time you checked? What does this mean; are you descending, ascending, staying level? Is this correct for this point in the dive?

External is the last check. This covers my buddy (how’s their breathing? Are they neutrally buoyant? Finning calmly? Do you need to ask them how much gas they have?) and the environment (is there a current? Are you going the right way? Is there anything cool to look at?).

As you scan each section consider what the information you've just seen means for the future. Whether you need to respond immediately, or whether this is just something that needs monitoring.

If other events are happening your attention may be transferred on to these. A shark swims past, for example. Followed by another, and another. Next thing you know 15 minutes have gone past and you’ve gone over your NDL. With practice you can develop a habit of “scanning” the most important things every few minutes. It won’t stop every problem, and you still have to remember to complete the scan, but it will help to direct attention to where it is most needed.

These are not exhaustive lists and each one depends on the type of dive you’re doing, who you’re with and where you are. You may add different things onto the list, and probably won’t check everything every time.

We tend to only be aware of things that are DIPI: Dangerous, Important, Pleasurable or Interesting. It can be difficult to recognise that a situation is developing into something dangerous until too late, especially if it involves small changes, like an NDL counting down minute by minute. If we can prioritise Important over Pleasurable or Interesting then we’ll be very safe divers but will have lost some of the fun involved. The difficulty is finding a good balance. And this is where practice comes in.



The best way we can help ourselves is by slowing down and practising. We can’t buy experience, it takes time to build it. The more experience we have and the more we practise, the more we can build our capacity and can have greater awareness of our situation. Directing our attention to the most important things will give us a solid framework to focus ourselves on whatever is important.

These tips are all fairly simplified. It is not possible to put every suggestion into a blog post, nor will every suggestion be applicable to everyone on every dive. One of the biggest problems with Human Factors is that often what we talk about seems to be common sense or obvious. My attempt with this blog is to give some practical suggestions that will hopefully get you thinking. However nothing beats time in the water and training.

Jenny is a full-time technical diving instructor. Prior to diving, she worked in outdoor education for 10 years teaching rock climbing, white water kayaking and canoeing, sailing, skiing, caving and cycling, among other sports. Her interest in team development started with outdoor education, using it as a tool to help people learn more about communication, planning and teamwork.

Since 2009 she has lived in Dahab, Egypt teaching SCUBA diving. She is now a technical instructor trainer for TDI, advanced trimix instructor, advanced mixed gas CCR diver and helitrox CCR instructor.

Jenny has supported a number of deep dives as part of H2O divers dive team and works as a safety diver in the stunt industry.

If you'd like to deepen your diving experience, consider taking the online introduction course which will change your attitude towards diving because safety is your perception, visit the website.