Friday, May 16, 2008

Inattentional Blindness

There has been a lot of attention lately about keeping the mind fit through various exercises. The explosive interest in sudoku is perhaps one of the better examples of how mind exercise has becoming increasingly popular. Of course, an aging population of baby boomers, who have longer life spans, is a driving factor here. No one wants to spend their golden years in a vegetative state.

Out of all this attention to fit minds there is one area that really interests me most. It is called "inattentional blindness"

To borrow from an abstract of a Harvard published paper: "With each eye fixation, we experience a richly detailed visual world. Yet recent work on visual integration and change direction reveals that we are surprisingly unaware of the details of our environment from one view to the next: we often do not detect large changes to objects and scenes (`change blindness'). Furthermore, without attention, we may not even perceive objects (`inattentional blindness'). Taken together, these findings suggest that we perceive and remember only those objects and details that receive focused attention."

When you give this phenomena some thought you begin to understand the impact on your ability as an observer and your reactions. But perhaps it is best to experience this. Go to this link to really feel, first hand, what "inattentional blindness" is. After you visit the site, come back.(I've heard back that some cannot view the video at the link above. Here is a link to download the video file - it plays using RealPlayer)

If you visted and experienced the little video test at the link, you may surmise that this is a non-trivial phenomena. To quote from another article I read: “This research is showing us something that we didn't think was the case—that we can fail to perceive very major things going on right in front of our eyes,” remarks cognitive psychologist Brian Scholl, PhD, of Yale University. “In contrast with a lot of research on visual perception, these studies are truly surprising for both scientists and lay people because they're so at odds with how we assumed vision worked.”

How much do we miss, each and every day? It's hard to say. I suspect it may be quite lot, but I also suspect much of it is trivial. However, imagine if we are talking about driving on a highway for a long period of time, and suddenly the car slams into a cow. Assuming you survived the crash, and could still talk, you would swear to anyone listening that the cow appeared out of no where, or that you were compeltely unaware of the animal before you felt the impact. Listeners may be skeptical. After all, they might say, it was daylight, the area beside that spot on the highway was void of anything that might have masked the approach of the animal, even if it was running at high speed, which it most likely was not, since cows tend to be normally stolid in their movement. Lets take this example a step further. What if the cow is an airplane on the runway, and you are a captain of an airliner landing on the same runway?

People's inability to detect unexpected objects to which we aren't paying attention, raises other questions: How much visual input can the mind encode, consciously and unconsciously? What brings some visual objects to conscious awareness, while others remain unnoticed? What is the fate of information that is perceived only unconsciously? And what might we do to overcome this trait and increase our capacity for observation and response?

If you want to read more on this topic check out a copy of an article posted on a motorcycle enthusiast's blog here and the obvious lesson in all this for the every day driver.

If you would like to guage your own susceptability to inattentional blindness check this page out. You will need Apple's quicktime player in order to play the videos there. You can download it here if you need it. You will need the Java plug-in for so,me of the demos which you can get here. Both are worth having on your computer if you enjoy fully featured web browsing. What are examples of your own experience with inattentional blindness, or are you even aware of any? I hope you will post some comments.


Veronica said...

I did the test. My counting is correct but I totally missed the moon-walking bear:) This how our mind works, we only want to see and hear things that we expect to see and hear. It is very possible we can miss significant things even if it is in front of us if we do not make an effort to be more observant.

Anonymous said...

If you like do the test, you might want to check out the latest campaign from Think! Road Saftey which also demonstrates inattentional blindness - More info at my blog. Nic