A few days ago, Suellen put some freshly laundered sheets at the base of the stairs. Whoever went upstairs next should take the sheets and put them away in the linen closet. Don’t climb the stairs just to take the sheets up, but the next person to go upstairs should take the sheets with them. Simple, no?
I was the next one to go upstairs. But I wasn’t thinking about sheets. Rather, I was thinking about getting the checkbook from the office (also upstairs) and going to the bank to move some money from savings to checking so I could pay bills on the first of the month. Sheets were unexpected.
Thinking about monthly bills, checkbooks, accounts, etc. fully occupied my attention. I completely missed the sheets. I’m sure that I looked right at them. In fact, I probably had to step over them. But, did I see them? Well… yes and no. My eyes saw them but my brain didn’t. In the lingo of brain scientists, I was inattentionally blind.
It happens all the time. We’re thinking about one thing while doing another. We pay attention to what we’re thinking about. We may “see” something in our visual field – we may look right at it – and not register it. In effect, we’re blind because our attention is elsewhere and we didn’t expect to see sheets (or unicorns or anything out of the ordinary).
I’m sure that this is how a lot of accidents happen. I’ve heard people say, “I never saw him” or “It came out of nowhere.” In general, our brain can function quite well on autopilot. It’s how we drive 30 miles without remembering any of it. Driving is simple enough that the autopilot portion takes over and leaves our attention free to wander. It’s just fine. Until it’s not.
So here’s a tip: set a little “attentional” alarm in your brain. When the alarm goes off, ask yourself, “What am I paying attention to?” and “What am I missing?” Then look around to see what’s really going on in your visual field. You’ll be surprised.
As I came back down the stairs with the checkbook in hand, I noticed the sheets. I realized immediately what had happened. I had been inattentionally blind. I also knew that Suellen might be suspicious of this excuse. Bottom line: I picked up the sheets, took them back upstairs, and put them away. Problem solved.