Blindness through Attention
Updated: Sep 23
The price that must be paid for attention is both what we give it and everything we lose because of it.
Occasionally I find myself making connections on subjects revolving around the deepest parts of the brain or the farthest outskirts of the universe simply while walking home from the market. When these connections occur, sometimes an accompanying thought comes with them: "Maybe I am pretty smart!" This fills me with a sense of pride all the way up until I reach my doorstep and come realize that I have forgotten my key for the second time this week and fourth time this month. Then, during the ever increasing span of time it takes my roommate to let me in, I am forced to dwell on the sad reality that knowledge isn't everything.
This entry is about attention given the brain's Cognitive Equity. My first article involving this subject, Knowledge and Specialization, compared our mind to a glass of water that has a limited capacity to retain knowledge and therefore we must specialize in certain subjects while being forced to neglect others. My last article in this subject's trilogy will be about heightened senses.
You may be thinking, "everyone forgets their keys now and then JM, you are not special." I agree with you. However, my inability to remember such a crucial piece of metal has been consistently occurring at this pace since I first moved out of my parents house almost four years ago. I am, as well, extremely poor with names, as many of those closest to me can vouch (though I can't recall who). The substantial amount of post-it notes on the desk in front of me can even further support that short-term memory in general has always seemed to escape me.
Patent clerk Albert Einstein, whom I in no way compare myself to but is known all over the globe for a good amount of thinking, often was recorded displaying similar traits. He famously had to call the school he taught at for the address to his home which he had already been living at for a number of years. (He was, as well, posthumously diagnosed with autism and, similarly to the savant chess player mentioned in my previous article, lacked most social skills).
While I don't really see myself and the aforementioned physicist having much in common, it does seem our minds overlap in our weaknesses of focus. Weakness? Yes, because while focus can be beneficial, paying attention causes what economists refer to as an opportunity cost. The price that must be paid for attention is both what we give it and everything we lose because of it. The cognitive equity necessary with attention is that it accompanied by disregard.
Very few momentous and ground breaking psychological experiments are ethical, insightful, and entertaining. One at the intersection of these traits is the selective attention experiment added below. I would like you to check it out for yourself before I reveal its name as it will influence your experience. It's an interactive YouTube video that only takes a minute, but you will not forget it.
Have you watched it? Did you guess correctly?
If you have and you did (or didn't), then you were probably shocked to learn a harry underpaid student intern walked right through the screen in a gorilla suit unbeknownst to you. Or maybe you did notice it, because that's just as likely. Half of all people who take that test fail to notice the gorilla due to a psychological phenomenon the researchers deemed Innatentional Blindness. Those who do notice the ball tend to be more familiar similar stimuli (such as being a volleyball or basketball player). The 'Invisible Gorilla, as the experiment has come to be called, is the cognitive opportunity cost of concentrating all our attention on the basketball.
In their book The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us the researchers, as well, provide the example which follows:
In 1995 a cop named Kenny Conley was so focused on the on foot pursuit of a suspect that he ran right past his fellow cops beating up one of their own whom they assumed was a suspect, due to his off duty attire, and failed to notice them entirely. Or so he stated when questioned during an internal investigation.
The experiment proved that it is highly likely Conley ran blindly by his fellow enforcers of the law due to his impenetrable focus at achieving his goal.
What would we focus on when looking up at a clear sky?
To focus and remember would not be in our language nor conceivable if we did not also disregard and forget. Why would we need either if we recorded everything? We do so, whether consciously or not, because it is more beneficial for us to be selective in what we concentrate on given a constant flood of stimulation. Imagine a football player who couldn't differentiate between the crowd and the goal post during a free kick in a close game. Focus helps us make creative and appropriate decisions, predict the future, and infer what others are thinking. At least the background remains instead of having full time tunnel vision or selective hearing (though evidently sometimes it can be pretty similar).
While it may seem that concentration on a task at hand impeding situational awareness is incomparable to forgetfulness of small things such as names and addresses, both are caused by our brains need to maintain cognitive equity. A give and a take. Balance. Most people, like Einstein, with a devotion to an area like physics (or psychology and computer science), tend to be heavily concentrated on them regularly. Causing our brain to allocate less focus and memory to that which is irrelevant.
We each see the world through a perceptual lens, associating more things to our areas of interest and knowledge than others. Like certain ball players being better at focusing on a basketball and still having a good awareness of the hairy movement in the background. Or learning a new word and hearing it more often in everyday life. The same effect comes from the language(s) we learn and communicate through. Because we perceive the world through our memories we are constantly thinking in terms of what we know and believe.
More often than not, when we hold interest in an area we strive to learn more about it. Knowledge and Specialization describes just how our knowledge base develops interests and the deficits that come with it. We can only learn so much meaning there has to be so much more we can't know. We perceive through the lens of what we know, therefore as we take in the world our brain must decide on what it will retain (and what it will not). While Kevin Conley most likely 'saw' his fellow cop being beaten and I definitely needed my keys when I walked out of my apartment, our brains deemed them unimportant in comparison to whatever else was going on inside our heads and decided there was no need to retain them.
You can't remember everything. Don't forget that.
If you want to learn more about this subject or the other flaws that come with our our mind, I encourage you to check out the previously mentioned book The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. It is just as entertaining, insightful, and easy to read as the above information. In my next article involving cognitive equity I will be discussing how the loss of one sense can heightens the others. Subscribe below to stay updated and thanks for reading, it means a lot to me!
Focused lens (image):
Dory quote (image):
Short-term memory description:
Albert Einstein forgetfulness anecdote:
Did Einstein have Autism?:
Your Brain Can only Take So Much Focus:
The Invisible Gorilla: and Other Ways Our Intuitions Decieve Us:
Why it is better to focus:
Focusing makes creative and applicable decisions:
Focus helps predict the future:
Focusing helps to infer the thoughts of others:
Balanced rocks (image):