Are You Checking Your Attention’s Blind Spots?

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By Janet Choi


Ever get so caught up in a task that you don’t notice something in plain sight? There’s actually a term for that — inattentional blindness — a state of unseeing created by where you’re focusing your attention.

A famous example of inattentional blindness is the invisible gorilla study. Before participants watch a video of two teams of three people passing a basketball, they are told to carefully count the number of passes made by the team dressed in white (the other is dressed in black). Halfway through the video, a woman in a gorilla suit walks through to the middle of the screen, beats her chest, and then walks offscreen.

About half the viewers fail to see the gorilla at all, but without the instruction to count the passes, a person in a gorilla suit would’ve been pretty hard to miss.

(Source: https://www.youtube.com/)

Inattentional blindness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Flip it around, and it’s focused attention, an essential skill. What’s funny and enlightening about the invisible gorilla test is how we deceive ourselves into thinking that we wouldn’t have been the ones taken in. We’re smugly sure that those other people would totally miss the gorilla but no, not us! As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, who conducted the invisible gorilla test, note, “We think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we’re actually missing a whole lot.”

We have a lot of blind spots in our lives, but we can be more observant about what we’re missing once we admit that we stink at seeing things as they really are. The world’s best professional pickpocket Apollo Robbins, profiled in a fascinating New Yorker piece, relies on inattentional blindness and his ability to choreograph the spotlight of your attention so that he can perform his craft in the created darkness. He explains, “Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.

In these days of screens and information streams, there are a lot of diverting channels. My attention certainly can have the flow of a broken, possessed water fountain. I wonder what’s going on in the dark. How can I better choreograph my attention and see what I’m missing?

The quantified self movement aims to help people more clearly see themselves through recording and tracking aspects of daily life, measuring anything that’s measurable, including fitness, eating, spending, and sleeping habits. Self-knowledge through data turns into self-improvement. The spotlight of attention can shine on details whose prosaic, mundane presence, or absence, usually melt away from our consciousness.

While I’m not the type of person who naturally takes to something like self-tracking, I remember a Q&A I did with Stacy-Marie Ishmael who, using iDoneThis, discovered a correlation between the time she woke up and her productivity level:

I started noticing that on the days when I got out of bed really early and I went for a run or went to the gym or went to spin class, I got three times as much done than as on the days when I get up slightly later. For me, there’s a direct correlation between waking up early and doing some kind of exercise and having an incredibly productive day. That’s not something I would have noticed, had it not been for keeping track of that and looking back at my calendar.

Improving my self-awareness may just require a little more quality time being more conscious and observant on a regular basis. The eye-opening power of channelling attention more mindfully makes me think about getting back into journaling about my day, or how I could be using iDoneThis more thoughtfully, for personal stuff, for work, and the overlap and connections that exist between the two.

Maybe I’ll discover that I’ve been deceiving myself about how many cookies I eat during the week, or make some cool connection about conditions that make me more productive. Maybe I’ll find some other gorilla of habit beating its chest that I have totally failed to notice.

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Photo: David Cornejo/Flickr


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