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Inattentional Blindness: Why We Can’t Always See the Obvious

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When drivers focus on a task that demands their attention (like texting), they often fail to notice unexpected objects and events that occur in full view (a pedestrian or another car in their path).

This experience is known as inattentional blindness because people usually are not conscious of events that are outside of the focus of their attention, even relatively dramatic events.

University of Utah psychologists found in 2011 that those using cell phones while driving fail to see something right in front of them because they are “operating on lower working memory capacity.” Memory capacity is another term for multi-tasking: the ability to focus attention when and where it is needed, on more than one thing at a time.

Ignoring the Obvious?

Although some drivers may be able to focus their attention on the road when distracted — only about 2.5 percent, according to the Utah research — inattentional blindness explains why drivers sometimes are unable to see something right in front of them, such as a red light or a child on a bicycle, because they are distracted by what is happening on their cell phone. Although the driver might appear to be focused on the road, he is mentally unable to see his surroundings because his mind is still focused on the last text message he sent, sometimes up to 15 seconds earlier.

In a new book entitled “A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel explores the phenomenon of inattentional blindness and recounts the case of Reggie Shaw, a Utah teenager who drove into oncoming traffic in 2006, causing the death of two scientists on their morning commute:

As Reggie’s story unfolded, it illuminated and contributed to a thread of science dating to the 1850s, when scientists began to measure the capacities of the human brain – how we process information, how quickly, and how much of it. Prior to that time, the conventional wisdom was that people could react instantly. The idea was that the human brain was “infinite.”

So even if your vision is 20/20, you have likely experienced inattentional blindness at one time or another. We’re all bombarded with such large amounts of sensory information that there is no way we can process it all, so we focus on selective details and filter everything else out — even oncoming traffic or a pedestrian crossing the street, seemingly in plain sight.

Image by Jamie Grant


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