A few years ago, researchers at Harvard University conducted an interesting experiment. A group of people were asked to watch a short video with 6 basketball players (three in white shirts, the other three – in black). They were also asked to silently count the number of passes players in white shirts made.
Then suddenly a gorilla appeared on the screen for about 9 seconds. Would you see it?
Of course I’d see it, you would think. It’s impossible to overlook something as large as a gorilla. However, despite logic, half of the people in the test group later said they didn’t see any gorilla at all.
How is it possible to overlook a big, moving object right in front of you? Let’s see what inattentional blindness means and why we should know about this curious shortcut our brain takes.
What do we see?
First of all, the test makes it clear that our perception depends not on the limits of our eyesight, but the limits of our brain. Your eyes see but if the brain chooses not to process incoming information, you won’t be able to recall it. In fact, you won’t have a clue it exists.
Simply put, two major conclusions from the test are:
- we miss plenty of things around us;
- we usually have no idea we miss them.
While we are not able to notice every last thing around us in the first place (which is good because otherwise we’d be overwhelmed with huge amounts of unnecessary data) in some cases it’s really important to keep your eyes wide open. It’s especially true in situations critical to our safety (like not hearing the sound of an approaching car while texting).
One of our strongest beliefs is that if our eyes are open, we see. Then how is it possible that we fail to notice things right in front of us? The test from above provides an explanation: when we are focused entirely on one task, we ignore everything else around, even things important to us. It’s like a curtain drawn in front of us obscuring our clear view.
Inattentional blindness in action
Here are a few examples of real-life situations where inattentional blindness manifests itself.
- When you look for green things, you start noticing them everywhere. In doing so, you fail to notice all the other things, e.g. white.
- You want to make a phone call while driving. You focus on the phone in your hands and fail to notice how the traffic lights are changing and so an accident is very likely to happen.
- Numerous court cases where witnesses didn’t see crucial things although they were right in front of them and so wrong decisions were made.
Some great benefits
Strangely enough, in learning or work, inattentional blindness shows its better half. As you might have figured out, it can provide us with a great focus. The moment something really absorbs us we stop paying attention to the outside world. We might see what is happening around, hear the noise outside but we don’t realize it.
When you’re fully concentrated on the task, such blindness is really helpful. The less distractions there are, the quicker you do your work. Creativity, attention, memory – all your intellectual skills are directed on a single problem. This way not only a solution is produced faster and with less energy drain, but its quality is much higher.
Like with many things that deal with your brain, inattentional blindness is something you cannot really control. We already saw that it does facilitate effective learning and work; at the same time in other real-life situations it’s better to stay attentive to the outside events. The best we can do therefore, is adapt and try to make the most of it.