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Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

Paying attention

Inattentional blindness, distracted pedestrians, human factors, distracting personal devices

Some things you can’t get out of your mind. For me, it’s the tragic death of a young man in our town while crossing railroad tracks. Likely he was unaware of the train bearing down on him because he was absorbed in the world of music in his head.

How could this happen? What can we do to make crossing places safer? Those are the questions most people are asking, and I ask them too.

But discomfort swells when we ask how we can teach our children – ourselves – to pay attention to the physical world when we are navigating it. Friends tell me I don’t understand: we can’t expect children, especially boys, to walk places safely until they are. . . older. An online group of mothers agrees that 14, even 18, is as soon as they’d consider letting their kids walk to school.

With no disrespect to anyone, that sounds crazy to me. The age of crossing the street should not be older than the age of carrying firearms.

I believe that our kids, most of them, are not less capable of learning to be safe, alert pedestrians than we were.

What’s different now (besides more traffic congestion, ridiculously short traffic light times for pedestrians in crosswalks, and more inattentive drivers) is more use of distracting personal devices. Cell phones, MP3 players, smartphones, on and on.

More distracted pedestrians.

And a whole society that is reluctant to say turn the damn things off sometimes. Take out the earbuds. Lift your eyes. Pay attention to a world that has cars and trains and dogs and mountain lions and other people in it.  Real people, the kind you can feel and touch, see and smell, right here, right now. Things with mass and, sometimes, momentum. At very least, do it when you are in intersections.

This morning I learned about a growing “disease:” inattentional blindness.  Human factors expert Marc Green, PhD, has a great deal to say about it.

Why do intelligent, diligent and thorough people so often fail to see the obvious?

(I'll resist the temptation to turn this into a political comment.)

The answer lies in inattentional blindness, a condition that all people exhibit periodically.

As the name implies, it is the failure to see an object because attention is not focused on it. Although the phenomenon has long been known, recent evidence shows that it is much more pervasive that anyone had imagined and that it is one of the major causes of accidents and human error.

To understand how inattentional blindness occurs, it is necessary to accept a very unintuitive idea: most of our perceptual processing occurs outside of conscious awareness. Our senses are bombarded with such a large amount of input, sights, sounds, smells, etc., that our minds cannot fully process it all. The overload becomes even worse when we recall information from memory and engage in deep thought.

To cope with the problem, we have evolved a mechanism called attention, which acts as a filter that quickly examines sensory input and selects a small percentage for full processing and for conscious perception. The remaining information is lost, unnoticed and unremembered - we are inattentionally blind to it since it never reached consciousness. This all happens without our awareness, so it is not a behavior which people can bring under conscious control.

The take-away point is that inattentional blindness happens to everyone. When we are bombarded with stimuli, our brains must filter some out for us to operate.

Green points out that inattentional blindness is mainly a good thing, certainly in the workplace or the classroom, during meditation or sex or soccer games.

As William James noted 120 years ago, ‘Only those items which I notice shape my mind - without selective interest, experience is utter chaos.’ . . .It is the price we pay for the gift of attention. Paying attention to one thing means that we don't pay attention to everything else. Without this ability to block out the irrelevant, we could not function.

The question hinges on what is irrelevant and what’s relevant. That’s situational.  Listen to your personal music while on a treadmill, but not when crossing streets. Text while watching a movie in your home, but not in your car or in a movie theater where the light grabs other people’s attention.

Time to stop turning a blind eye to a growing problem. Inattention on the roads is more dangerous than most of what we choose to fear.

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