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Found it syndrome

Imagine yourself at your very first day at work. You receive from your boss a laptop and a manual and he tells you to start working. You only have one day to be up to date! Of course, you know how to read a book and you know how to work with a laptop; however, you have no clue what you’re supposed to do. “It’s all in there” he said. But you feel you only received small pieces of the information…

So, you start your laptop and open your manual. Ok, the first pages make sense. But then, you’re not so sure anymore. “I know this”, “I’ve seen that before”, “Why am I supposed to do that?” and without realizing you started reading the first pages all over. Two hours later and you’re still stuck. “What am I supposed to do?”

Anxiety is growing while you try to link all this new information to what you already know, and then it comes: THE BLANK STARE!

Escape rooms are awesome. I guess I don’t really need to tell you that. But what if I told you they’re an incredible tool to learn more about people?

I’ve been observing from my control “tower” all kind of teams and I think I have enough material to write a whole book, or almost.

In my previous post I wrote about team development. This time I want to share some insight on one flaw many participants share, which I call “FOUND IT”. I guess I wouldn’t be far from the truth by stating that this is a common human behaviour.

So, what does it mean? In our escape game “Dusk of Ra”, which I remind you is specifically designed for team-building, players have to use multiple layers of information. They have to use a paper notebook, wooden tablets and other props with content spread throughout the rooms.

The “Found it” syndrome, also known as “I know I’ve seen it before” is not hereditary, nor is it part of a disease. Rather than that, it’s a psychological pattern and could be compared to the writer’s blank page syndrome, and in most cases, they share the same unique stare.

Neurosciences tell us a lot about blank stares; especially like the left one above. (just marvellous)

An escape game uses one or several rooms and focuses a lot on their spatial properties and on patterns. Players have to orient themselves in a new environment they don’t know and don’t always understand, using tool they are used to use, however in other contexts. This can be daunting and overwhelming – especially if you come play with a large group.

In probably more than 70% of the sessions I see at least one person having a blank stare moment, focusing their attention on a specific object. It can be the notebook, a puzzle or just a piece of the puzzle. They are so absorbed that they almost look anesthetized, forgetting everything around them and being forgotten by everyone else (except the game master). It goes as far as having this person remain in that state for almost all the game, sometimes monopolizing an extremely important pieces of information blocking the rest of the team.

Let’s dig deeper. Our brain has four governances running it as seen on the following picture.

We’ll use these in order to explain why this blank stare happens.

First of all, it is important to understand that in the escape game experience (and probably also at work) it’s the adaptive governance that should be used when trying to find a solution. Any other governance may be a hinder more than anything else.

The blank stare could be the result of zoning out; which is a way to dissociate with a situation. Your body freezes and you basically play dead. This means that in this situation you’re in front of a quandary which is too stressful, leveling up your anxiety meter and your instinctive governance takes over. You want it to end and you play dead till then. In most cases, you’re actually dead for the rest of the team or at least dead weight. Weirdly, I’ve never seen team-mates realize someone is zoning-out and try to help them get back on track. On the contrary, this seems to have a contagious effect on other players like yawning. Evidence suggests that zoning-out may have positive influence on creativity same as being in a state of flow. That said, there is a time limit for it and it should be beneficial for all the team. Therefore it’s an ability we need to be able to switch to rather than be controlled by.

In other cases, the dreadful stare comes from trying to relate a pattern to something we’ve experienced before. There are two puzzles in the game that have this very strong effect on players and I often see them concentrate without any concentration at all. They move their stare from one piece of the puzzle to the other, awestruck. They know the answer is there, they can feel it. And yet, nothing happens. In this case, it’s the emotional governance which plays the role of our hard-drive that takes the lead. Gazing into nothing seems to help remember, however, is remembering really what’s needed here? And so, almost naturally, the person infected is forgotten by the rest of the team.

We all have a spatial ability which is the capacity to understand, reason, and remember the spatial relations among objects or space. This ability is extremely important during an escape game and it’s easy to find out which player has a strong aptitude for it. Escape games can be visually overwhelming. There is so much information we don’t know where to start. This can lead low spatial-ability persons to overload, have their cerebral blood-flow almost at a standstill and get the now famous stare. I’ll let you guess to which governance it relates.

What I find really fascinating is that the gregarious governance which controls the safety of the team is rarely affected by players spacing-out. Each player is so focused on his own thing that they wouldn’t even realize if we just deleted that person.

What’s more interesting is that all this happens before the norming state and that makes sense. During the forming and storming phase, there is no real structure, players try to find or define their role and without leadership it often remains that way.

Many teams that have blank stare people (sounds like a bad movie or band) end up getting in the norming phase only very late in the game and only if a player takes the lead or in case the game master shakes them up.

On the other hands, teams with a strong coordinator or that quickly get to the norming state rarely experience a blank stare.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from it which relates to teamwork and there are simple questions we can use to find out if someone is stuck in such a situation and require assistance as in most cases it’s stress that causes these stares.

You see a colleague staring into nothingness? Maybe try having a brief conversation with the person.