I’m often asked: “What is your favorite introductory psych chapter?” I reply that, when starting to write my text, I presumed that Sensation-Perception would be the dullest topic. Instead, I’ve found it to be the most fascinating. I’m awestruck by the intricate process by which we take in information, transform it into nerve impulses, distribute it to different parts of our brain, and then reassemble that information into colorful sights, rich sounds, and evocative smells. Who could have imagined? We are, as the Psalmist said, “wonderfully made.”
And then there are the weird and wonderful perceptual phenomena, among which is our surprising blindness to things right in front of our eyes. In various demonstrations of inattentional blindness, people who are focused on a task (such as talking on a phone or counting the number of times black-shirted people pass a ball) often fail to notice someone sauntering through the scene—a woman with an umbrella, in one experiment, or even a person in a gorilla suit or a clown on a unicycle.
As a Chinese tour guide wrote to a friend of mine (after people failed to notice something my friend had seen):
This looking-without-seeing phenomenon illustrates a deep truth: Our attention is powerfully selective. Conscious awareness resides in one place at a time.
Selective inattention restrains other senses, too. Inattentional deafness is easily demonstrated with dichotic listening tasks. For example, if people are fed novel tunes into one ear, while focused on to-be-repeated-out-loud words fed into the other ear, they will later be unable to identify what tune they have heard. (Thanks to the mere exposure effect, they will, however, later like it best.) Or, in an acoustic replication of the famed invisible gorilla study, Polly Dalton and Nick Fraenkel found that people focusing on a conversation between two women (rather than on two men also talking) usually failed to notice one of the men repeatedly saying “I am a gorilla.”
Now, in a new British experiment, we also have evidence of inattentional numbness. Pickpockets have long understood that bumping into people makes them unlikely to notice a hand slipping into their pocket. Dalton (working with Sandra Murphy) experimented with this tactile inattention: Sure enough, when distracted, their participants failed to notice an otherwise easily-noticed vibration to their hand.
Tactile inattention sometimes works to our benefit. I once, while driving to give a talk, experienced a painful sting in my eye (from a torn contact lens) . . . then experienced no pain while giving the talk . . . then felt the excruciating pain again on the drive home. In clinical settings, such as with patients receiving burn treatments, distraction can similarly make painful procedures tolerable. Pain is most keenly felt when attended to.
Another British experiment, by Charles Spence and Sophie Forster, demonstrated inattentional anosmia (your new word for the day?)—an inability to smell. When people focused on a cognitively demanding task, they became unlikely to notice a coffee scent in the room.
So what’s next? Can we expect a demonstration of inattentional ageusia—inability to taste? (That’s my new word for the day.) Surely, given our powers of attention (and corresponding inattention), we should expect such.
Like a flashlight beam, our mind’s selective attention focuses at any moment on only a small slice of our experience—a phenomenon most drivers underestimate when distracted by phone texting or conversation. However, there’s good news: With our attention riveted on a task, we’re productive and even creative. Our attention is a wonderful gift, given to one thing at a time.
(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)