Perpetual Inattentional Blindness

I first saw The Invisible Gorilla video in 1980-something (’87? 88?).  Alan Kay showed it to a crowd of Apple employees in a jam-packed auditorium, just prior to a talk by Tim Gallwey.

Experiencing the video was a knock on the side of the head.  Being chosen by Tim Gallwey to play catch with him on stage, in front of my colleagues, was utterly terrifying.  Then, there it was.  When he tossed the ball, asking me to notice the shape of the holes, I, a legally blind without glasses human, easily caught the ball.   Our game of catch was flowing perfectly, until my mind interrupted with an internal broadcast:  “Linda, you are catching a ball onstage, in front of 500 people.”  I dropped the ball.

My cognitive science background sent me to the literature, and, one of my favorite resources today, in the study of attention, is the work of Chabris and Simons, on “selective attention,” or, “inattentional blindness.”  Scholarpedia defines this as the failure to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected object because attention is engaged on another task, event, or object.

Then it hit me.  Our relationships with our SmartPhones, and this wicked habit that many of us have, of walking or driving while texting or talking, holds us in a state of perpetual inattentional blindness.

On a trip to New York City in fall, 2010, the real cost of perpetual inattentional blindness came through loud and clear.

Diary, September 2010

I’m in NY and staying at a friend’s apartment.  He’s not there. I’ve had a terrific night’s sleep, a hot shower, and now, plan to dry my hair and head over to a conference, where I’ll be speaking about millenials in the workplace.

After my session, several videotaped interviews are planned.  I’m figuring out what to wear. I brought several things to choose from so I could feel comfortable in front of the cameras.  I even called my friend’s assistant in advance, “Do I need to bring a hair dryer or is there one in the apartment?”  Caught without a hair dryer on a previous visit, I knew I’d need a hair dryer for camera-ready hair.  She assured me I would find one in the apartment.

I check the hall closet for a hair dryer.  Then I check another closet.  And another.  One more.  OMG, no hair dryer!  I start catastrophizing as I imagine my fine, unruly hair without a dryer.  I go through the closets again.  Every closet.  Panicked, I call my friend’s office.  His assistant, Lesley, is helpful.

Five minutes later, there’s a knock on the door.  Someone in the building has a new hair dryer for me.  Relief. I notice the box is purple and looks familiar.  I return to the hall closet.  The box matches a box in the closet. I had been looking for a hair dryer.  What good is a box?

Laughing as I dry my hair, I wonder, how much is life like this every day?  How many things am I looking for with such vigilance, and such absolute certainty, that, even when they’re right in front of me, I fail to notice them. What does happiness look like?  What does love look like?  When I have “I don’t know,” mind, anything is possible.

Can you recall moments of inattentional blindness? How do you cultivate an open state?

Published by Linda Stone

I coined the phrases continuous partial attention, email apnea, and screen apnea. I write about attention and our relationship to technology.

13 thoughts on “Perpetual Inattentional Blindness

  1. Sometimes that old saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees” comes to mind. So much of it depends on how you use your mind to get past what you are seeing in the moment and to eventually look at the big picture. For some of us, living and working outside of our comfort zone helps to see what most others often cannot see inside their own circles. Lately, the question that has been haunting me more and more as I get older: Does this ability go away as one gets older and more “set” in one’s ways? Or are there those among us who manage to stay in this Perpetual Inattentional State for our entire lifetime? It goes to the heart of creativity, inventiveness and fascination.

  2. I like… photography is teaching me to see. I showed a woman at the Botanic Gardens a rainbow in the falling fountain spray. She couldn’t figure out what I was photographing. Everyone was walking by, but you could only see the rainbow from a narrow vantage point. She stood there and took pictures with me using her iphone.

  3. I like the term, perpetual inattentional blindness, and the way you’ve linked it to the use of smartphones. It seems to me, though, that the story you’ve shared is more one of episodic inattentional blindness, and that some level of inattentional blindness is likely to arise in any situation in which our attention is very focused on the task at hand (or nearly at hand).

    Applying your term and concept to another realm, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about many of the “findings” of science, which seem to suffer from what might be characterized as “drunk searching for keys under the lampost” syndrome. It seems that many scientists suffer from perpetual inattentional blindness, focusing their attention on phenomena that can be easily observed and measured, and unable to uncover insights that might be more easily visible to less trained eyes.

    As for combating perpetual inattentional blindness, I’ve recently renewed my meditation practice, sparked (in part) by Jack Kornfield’s recent book, “A Lamp in the Darkness”. An earlier dabbling with meditation was sparked by Kornfield’s earlier book, “A Path With Heart”, wherein he likened the practice of meditation to training a puppy, which in this context strikes me as a potential mascot for perpetual inattentional blindness. Kornfield offers a compassionate approach to responding to the puppy (= mind) as it perpetually wanders off when you are trying to train it to sit or stay: “Concentration is never a matter of force or coercion. You simply pick up the puppy again and return to reconnect with the here and now.”

    1. Comments like yours are one of the reasons I enjoy blogging. Thoughtful, insightful — thank you. If you haven’t read the earlier post, Suspending Disbelief, you might find it interesting.

      The hair dryer story is part of a larger set of stories I’m working on, related to how our definition and pursuit of productivity — man as machine, more, faster, more efficiently, has “interrupted” our relationship with our human-ness (the better we are at acting like machines, the worse we seem to be at connecting as humans). I don’t see technology as the “criminal.” It’s the HOW, and not the WHAT (and there’s an earlier post on that, as well).

      Like you, I’m inspired by the work of Jack Kornfeld, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others.

      1. Thanks for the pointer to your earlier post. I had not read it, but the distinction between “projective thinking” and “reactive thinking” – and its prevalence in medical science – is very resonant and relevant. Your allusion to Barbara McClintock is likewise resonant: I’ve admired her and her work ever since I following up on references made in Karina Knorr-Cetina’s classic paper on object-centered sociality.

  4. –> Didn’t McLuhan predict that any electrical device atrophies what it extends? When electrical charges pulse a piezoelectric crystal into digital life are not fundamental properties of consciousness externalized and the brain lobotomized? <–

    The more you are submerged in AC or DC electrical (and computer chip based) environments, the worse the situation becomes.

    Do you do mental sums or reach for the calculator, make mental notes or type up a To-do-sticky-note, snap mental photos, or can you only see through a viewfinder?

    Slowly authentic human qualities are replaced by hardware and software and we end up with humans running the android operating system, carrying touch pad but with no empathy, using smart phones for dumb things and flash memory to store their human memories.

    Shutdown, unplug, free yourself from the dream-catcher before you forget what it was like to be fully human.

    1. McLuhan’s predictive insights have unfolded all around us.

      The question on my mind is: Even when we shut down and unplug, WE are often shut down, minds filled with the busy. Minds filled with goals, with relentless drive. The larger opportunity is: How do we morph from 20th century notions of productivity: more, faster, more efficiently; to what can be 21st century notions of productivity: engaged, passionate, and human? From Gallup, to the National Leadership Council, data shows that engaged employees “deliver.” Tony Hsieh and Jenn Lim’s book on Zappos, Delivering Happiness, makes Zappos the canonical example.

      For me, when it comes to technology, it’s the HOW vs. the WHAT. Thank you for your comment and for bringing McLuhan into the conversation.

  5. Coming to a full stop yesterday to read this post felt like full attention. This is a subject I’m fascinated about for functional, intellectual and personal reasons. Yet only a few hours later, seeking to reference the concept, the term “inattentional blindness” alluded me. Forgetfulness is not the same as not seeing that which is in front of one, but it is akin to it. The frequency of interruptions by phone, cell phone, a variety of computer software, human and imagined intrusions — they seem to wear on cognitive systems. Synapses widen, signals fail to leap the gap, become discouraged apparently and at last decline to attempt the leap. What’s to be done when our livings are squeezed out of jobs for which “multi-tasking” features prominently in every job description? Attentional blindness, cognitive confusion, learning impairment, mental mayhem and subsequent moments of exhausted blank staring that is the opposite of a meditational moment. What’s to be done?

    1. Absolutely!! Inattentional blindness or selective attention are the names the field of psychology has given to this phenomenon. The name you’ve given it really fits! Thank you!

  6. I think we all have these sort of blindness quite often! We are expecting or looking for something specific, we have a picture in our mind to guide our search, when we cant match the picture we are blind. So if we have a picture in our mind on what happiness or love and we find a different version of it, we do not recognize it. That´s why I feel romantic comedies are dangerous, they give us an unreal image to look for, that we might never find. So yeah! It is important to be awake and aware of oneself!

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