This is a concept I’ve observed over the years. In the design and conducting of simulation we as facilitators and faculty members develop a shared mental model in what we see in a simulated environment, how we act in a simulated environment, and how we anticipate that our trainees will act in the simulated environment.
Embedded in the latter assumption is what I call the cognitive 3rd space of simulation. Conceptually this refers to the fact that participants of simulation in healthcare have a background thought process that is continuously assessing what they are seeing in the simulated environment and trying to decide what the facilitators are trying to indicate with the presence, and sometimes absence, of the various pieces of equipment, clinical finding replicas, and other accoutrements of the environmental stimulus associated with simulation. In other words there is a continuous background thought process trying to figure out is this that I am seeing supposed to be simulated or not.
In the real clinical environment where healthcare providers are gathering data from interviews, observations, physical examinations, test results etc. that feed into the eventual analysis which leads to a decision-making plan. This cognitive 3rd space associated with simulation is the fact that this continuous reconciliation of “what are they trying to simulate for me?” question that is continuously active in the mind of the trainees during simulation encounter in addition to the traditional process of data gathering analysis and treatment planning associated with the provision of real healthcare.
The degree of which a participant manages this third space is multifactorial and relates to many things including experience in the simulated environment, the orientation, the environment itself, their own confidence as well as the degree of buy-in that they have for the overall experience.
Reconciling this requires us to make a conscious understanding that when we provide stimulus in the simulated environment it may or may not be interpreted by the participant of simulation in the same way that it was intended. Helping to control the potential variation and confusion that can result from this is embedded into the design of our simulations, briefings and orientation, equipment selection and the interactions that go on between participants and facilitators of simulation events.
A variant to this also relates to the environmental set up of the simulation space. Participants are often focusing on “clues” in the surroundings of the simulated clinical environment. For example, if they notice an intubation set up on the bedside tray table they may think “this scenario requires an intubation.” While in the simulation they may or may not perform an intubation in the patient as a result of the observation, however this thought process or separate thread of thought is extramural to the normal cognitive processing that might go on in caring for a real patient.
As designers of simulations we must work to ensure that try to keep this interpretive grey zone minimized. This often runs afoul of the desire for many who try to recreate reality and go onto to develop the theatrics of simulations with clever remedies that may actually introduce further confusion into the mindset of the participant. The result may be an impediment in the ability to evaluate the performance in terms of the ability of the decisions to translate to the real care environment.