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Are you paying enough attention?

Have you ever driven home from a busy day at work, only to arrive not remembering much of what you saw on the drive home? Or have you stood at the fridge with the door open staring into unable to find what you're looking for despite it being right in front of you? This article puts the complex processes involved in focussing our attention into easy-to-understand terms.

"The tongues of dying men enforce attention like deep harmony" - William Shakespeare

As you know, I've had the privilege of moonlighting as a university lecturer over the past couple of years. One of my subjects has been a cognitive psychology course that goes by the name of The Human Mind (insert James Earl Jones voiceover here).

The first time I taught the topic of Attention, I was driving to work (pre-coffee) and carefully approached a busy round-about that is somewhat obscured by some large Norfolk Pines. I looked right, no cars coming, I looked left, no cars, and then glanced right again as I began to enter the round -about. At that point I was met with the oh-so-up-close-and-personal face of an angry cyclist at my window. How did that happen?

This phenomenonis called Inattentional Blindness.

Let me over-simplify a few concepts to explain.

Let's consider attention as a multifaceted and complex system with a limited capacity.

Now, there are seemingly infinite stimuli and pieces of information coming from our environment and made available to us through our senses at any point in time. But, because of our limited capacity to focus our attention, some of that information will be filtered in to be used or processed at a deeper level, while a whole stack of information gets filtered out. Thanks to these processes, we can focus our attention on the desired information and block out the rest - the distractors.

Let's take our sense of sight as an example. Our eyes see everything within their field of vision, but only the desired objects are filtered in to be processed deeper and then perceived by us. Attention therefore, appears to be the vital first step in perception.

For example, you might go and stand in front of the fridge looking for the stock to add to the risotto you are cooking, but you're so absorbed in your thoughts about that thing that happened at work today, you might not see the stock even though it's sitting right in front of you.

Where we focus our attention matters and because we only have limited resources, sometimes we aren't left with enough to successfully carry out the tasks we need to.

Inattentional blindness therefore occurs when our attention is taken up with other things preventing us from noticing our target stimuli. This is especially the case for situations we aren't expecting or prepared for, like the cyclist at the round-about. Clearly, this can have devastating consequences.

There are some famous examples of Inattentional Blindness, such as the Monkey Business Illusion where people watching two basketball teams count the number of times the white team pass the ball. If you haven't tried this before, have a go now and then come back to the article.

People tend to miss so much of what actually occurs in this clip! I mean, how can anyone miss a gorilla?

But don't despair! Unconscious perception still occurs in the absence of attention.

It turns out that we have a fantastic attention controller known as the Central Executive. Now you can imagine that guy as The Boss. The Boss determines how much attention is focused on a specific task, how it's divided between tasks, and how it is switched between tasks.

Largely it divides the resources between two different types of processes: Processes that involve sounds and verbal information (The Phonological Loop - PL); and, processes that involve visuospatial information (The Visuospatial Sketch-Pad - VSSP).

Let's apply this to a real-life scenario. Imagine you are driving your car AND talking on your mobile phone.

Your attention is simultaneously on driving and using your phone. The Boss (your Central Executive) is controlling the processes occurring within your phonological loop: talking, understanding the conversation etc. It is also controlling the processes happening within your Visuospatial Sketch-Pad: visualising landmarks and layout of the street, navigating the car etc.

Because both types of activities are different, they each have their own resources as well as sharing some. This explains why we can easily do things like sing and walk; knit and talk, for example - each activity uses a different set of resources, therefore not depleting stores. As long as we have enough resources to do both activities, there shouldn't be a problem. But if the system is overloaded, that's when errors occur.

In fact, I've noticed this myself recently. Typically, I can drive around my town, multi-tasking, making phone calls whilst busily rushing to the next appointment or place I have to be - I tell myself I'm being time efficient, and usually I am.

Lately though, I've been travelling longer distances and travelling on roads I don't know. Long-distance road trips are the ones I save to catch up with friends who live far away and usually require longer phone calls. It's been great to catch up with my friends, but I started to notice that I'd get off the phone, only to have no visual recollection of where I'd driven, or even of the colour of the car in front of me. Clearly I'd driven safely (or had I?) as I hadn't had an accident, but it scared me to think that if I was not conscious of my visual surroundings for the duration of the phone call, what would have happened if something unexpected occurred. What if a cow suddenly appeared on the road, for example? Why did I experience that?

Let's look more closely at when you are talking on the phone and driving. The main stimulus information for the phone conversation is the information that comes through your ear and your primary response is by talking. When you're driving, the main stimulation comes through your eyes, your primary responses involves control of your hands on the steering wheel and your feet on the pedals. For the phone conversation, you're relying on language skills and for driving, you need spatial skills. Overall, it looks like there's little overlap in the specific demands of these two tasks, and so little chance that the tasks will compete for resources.

For a skilled driver, the task combination is easy if the driving is straight forward and the conversation is simple. Things fall apart though the moment the conversation becomes complex or the driving becomes challenging; that's when these two tasks interfere with each other. Engaged in deep conversation, the driver misses a turn; while maneuvering through the intersection, the driver suddenly stops talking.

The situation is different for a novice driver. For a novice driver, driving is difficult enough, even on a straight road with no traffic. If therefore, we ask the novice to do anything else like talk on the phone or change the radio station, we put them at substantial risk.

That explains why I experienced the lack of visual awareness while I was driving on the new roads AND talking on the phone. I should have been more conscious of my surroundings and using more of my resources to do that, instead of using up some of the shared resources talking on the phone.

So please remember, that even with hands-free, drivers engaged in phone conversations are more likely to be involved in accidents, more likely to overlook traffic signals and slower to hit the brakes when they need to.

Let's all drive a little more consciously next time we get in the car.

Now for a little experiment... watch this YouTube clip and then come back so we can talk about it.

Well, how'd you go? I noticed so few of the changes the first time I watched that clip that I almost felt like I should never leave the house again... I mean, what else wasn't I noticing?

The phenomena demonstrated in the clip is known as Change Blindness and it's very similar to the Inattention Blindness we've been talking about. Change Blindness is where we fail to notice changes in scenes we are directly looking at.

Wow! I mean, what are we not noticing in the ever-changing 'scenes' in our everyday lives, right?

We hope you found this article interesting and we'd love to hear your stories about times you haven't been paying attention in the comments section. As always, if you like what you read, why not share us with your friends? The more the merrier!

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4 comments

  • Comment Link Cathy crawford Friday, 07 October 2016 19:26 posted by Cathy crawford

    That was so interesting and I will be focusing more after watching that
    Clip,I did miss a few changes.

  • Comment Link Jodie @ The Psychology of it Monday, 13 June 2016 09:18 posted by Jodie @ The Psychology of it

    Thank you for your comments Peta and Rocky!
    I didn't notice the buildings change at all Rocky, so you're one step ahead of me! If we knew what to expect, we would have been much better at noticing the changes, so that at least is something...

    Peta, your comment reminds me of how 'busy' we all are 'multi-tasking' - we kid ourselves we can do many things at once, but aren't we really just stopping and starting activities very quickly. We miss so much, internally and externally. And it is interesting to consider what is getting strengthened in terms of our beliefs and what is decaying through inattention.

    Lots of food for thought.

    x

  • Comment Link Rocky Monday, 06 June 2016 04:10 posted by Rocky

    Toward the end, I noticed that the buildings had changed color, but that is all. I missed the car change and the bicycle changes. Wow!

  • Comment Link Peta Sunday, 05 June 2016 22:35 posted by Peta

    This is very interesting! It has me wondering about all the things that do pass us by; as well as the internal changes that occur everyday within ourselves that we miss. Things such as our responses to external stimuli which may influence our choices. How our intuition plays a part in our awareness and our attention. How our beliefs will influence what we "see" and how what we focus on grows. Though providing Jodie. Thanks

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