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attention: change blindness

September 19, 2009

or as Dr Feldenkrais entitled one of his books, ‘The Elusive Obvious’.

Caveat: Don’t believe just because it’s on youtube that it’s the real deal. Obvious and yet so easily forgotten… however I reckon this video looks, smells, and tastes legit.

Why the caveat? It occurred to me while watching the video that our attention is generally directed by what we assume is possible and or likely. Peturbing assumptions about what is and isn’t possible or likely is part of the Feldenkrais stock-in-trade: it would be remiss of me not to have a little nudge.

That said, there are several things in the video worth teasing out.

Firstly, how absolute our unawareness of things outside the spotlight of our attention can be. These people didn’t dimly sense a difference or even barely notice a disturbance, they completely and utterly did not register a significant change in their immediate environment. Why significant? What changed was the only moving, living, potential source of danger nearby. 20,000 odd years ago this would translate as Man nil, Sabre-tooth 1, game set and match.

Secondly, this ‘blindness’ in attention covered at least three different sensory domains: vision, proprioception, hearing, and possibly although hard to tell from the video, smell. Not only did the replacement receptionist have different coloured hair, eyes and shirt, he was a different height – meaning the research participant would have to modify head-eye-neck relationships to look at the replacement’s face. Both receptionists spoke to participants, and although the voices were similar there were perceiveable differences in timbre and pitch. So despite the cues from two different teleceptor systems, most participants saw and heard nothing different.

Indeed the video tells us something about the way our attention works: that the necessary filtering of sense data tends to be congruent across senses, and anything filtered out is, well, entirely out. But it also raises a few questions about how we ‘set’ our filters. For instance, did the man with the shoulder bag miss what happened in the moment because he was concerned about how much time he had, and therefore his attention was on some future event? Did the girl who noticed the sign and dirtpot miss the switch because she’s majoring in landscape design or interior decoration? Did the others fail to observe a different person pop up barely two feet away as a result of highly habituated urban defense/privacy/survival mechanisms?

How do you set your filters?

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