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Bananas, Bagels, and Inattentional Blindness

Did I eat that?

Did I eat that?

Can you eat a banana without being aware of it?

On Mondays, Suellen and I go to an early morning exercise class at the University of Denver. Afterwards, we always go to the local bagel shop, have a couple of bagels, and do the New York Times crossword puzzle. (Monday is the easy day for the puzzle. They get harder throughout the week. Sunday is impossible.)

This morning we bought our pair of bagels and Suellen decided to add a banana to our standard fare. We then sat down and began to eat while also working on the crossword puzzle. I was working hard on my bagel and the puzzle. I thought Suellen was, too.

Some ten minutes later, Suellen held up the empty banana peel, looked at me, and asked, “Did I eat this?” Apparently she had though neither of us remembered it. We looked at the tables around us and couldn’t identify anyone who might have stolen the banana and left only the peel. It must have been the Freckled Beauty.

So, does this mean we’re senile? Hardly. It’s a good example, however, of inattentional blindness, something I’ve written about before. When you’re concentrating on something, a lot of other things can slip right past you. It’s a good reason to be suspicious of eyewitnesses and your own memory.

Seeing Without Seeing

I never saw him!

I never saw him!

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.

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