Attention is like a beam of light in a dark room. Your brain points attention at things of interest. If you look at any object on a table, the light of attention illuminates it, and you can see fine details. Attention takes effort though, and if you need a beam of light to see something, chances are the rest of the world is in darkness.
The attention can only focus on a few things at a time. While the rest of the world might be observable, we stay blind to it when we’re not investing effort.
The demonstration of this is really striking in psychology research, and the effect is called in-attentional blindness. The following video is from a study that demonstrates this.
After watching this video, the take-away is that you can replace an entire person in an ongoing conversation and not have the other person notice. What makes this possible is focusing the subject’s attention intently on a map, or a piece of paper that is being discussed. The more effort & attention the subject puts into that piece of paper, the more the rest of their world is in darkness and things are free to change, escaping their notice.
How does this Work?
A big part of it is the “flashlight” phenomenon. Your brain has a fixed amount of focus resources that it can use, and when it is “shining the flashlight” on the paper and thinking through directions across campus, or understanding the content – there are no resources left over to attend to the surroundings.
Another reason is the visual field:
There is actually less detail and information coming in on the periphery of our vision. There’s an old adage that what people are looking at is what they’re paying attention to, and in physical / biological terms this is quite true because the resolution of their vision is worse on the outsides!
Aside from the “flashlight” aspect of attention, your eyes and brain are fundamentally at a disadvantage if things are changing on your periphery. Notice that the subject in the experiment saw the table move through, and moved to avoid it, but kept his eyes glued on the paper. How was he to notice the difference in the person’s face in his peripheral vision? After a few seconds had gone by, and both had accepted the premise of an ongoing conversation, there would have been no reason to wonder about differences.
State of Flow
Related to this “flashlight” phenomena is the idea of being in a “state of flow”, which is when a person is fully immersed in an activity, feeling energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment.
For the most part…people are able to decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when one is in the flow state, they are completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. According to Csikszentmihályi, this occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.Flow
Attention is a Tradeoff
As we can see, the nature of what attention is creates negatives and downsides (you can be blind to your environment). And yet it creates upsides as well – you can become fully engrossed and productive in a task. And so the same phenomenon – blindness to whatever you aren’t focusing on – can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on the context!
In the previous post, Duality & See-Saws, we explored these types of trade-offs that come from duality: in order for there to be attention, there has to be something ignored. The difference between these two poles of attention & blindness creates many tradeoffs, which can be used to our advantage, as we learn and grow.