Change blindness and inattentional blindness are psychological terms experts use to describe situations where you don’t see everything in front of you. While similar, they have key differences.

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Your environment is full of visual information. At each moment, your eyes take in what you see and process it through the brain to give it meaning. Sometimes, you lose visual information in the shuffle due to an obstruction or a distraction.

Change blindness and inattentional blindness are two visual phenomena that affect everyone to some degree. These types of blindness are not the same as clinical blindness, but they can help you understand why you may not always see the whole picture.

Change blindness occurs when you don’t notice major changes in the visual environment (real life, photo, screen, etc.) due to some kind of interruption. These interruptions can include something as simple as a blink or darting of the eyes (saccades). Objects or other things that hinder the visual field may also cause change blindness.

Example: You are driving and move your eyes off the road momentarily for texting on a smartphone. When you move your gaze back to the driving environment, you fail to notice that all the cars have slowed to a stop.

Inattentional blindness occurs when you don’t see something in the visual environment because your focus is on something else. In other words, a distraction takes over your focus and doesn’t allow you to see the full picture.

Example: In a study, the participants saw footage of a crime. The researchers asked some participants to look for the crime, some to simply watch the video, and some to count people wearing white shirts. People watching the video or counting the white shirts did not see the crime happen.

Both change blindness and inattentional blindness involve not seeing everything in the visual field for some reason. Both types of “blindness” happen in the brain, where visual information is processed. Both may carry real-life risks, like an increased chance of accidents.

Another key similarity is that change blindness and inattentional blindness affect different people to varying degrees depending on factors like age, mental load, level of distraction, experience, or other variables (lack of sleep, influence of drugs, etc.).

There is also no specific treatment or cure for either change or inattentional blindness. Instead, both are “human errors” that you may experience.

Change blindness occurs due to some type of interruption or blockage of the visual environment. Again, it could be a blink, sudden eye movement, or even an object that blocks the scene in some way. Inattentional blindness, on the other hand, is due to some distraction. It could be visual, auditory, or in some other part of the senses.

Alternatively, inattentional blindness happens at the moment because the direction of your attention is elsewhere. Change blindness, on the other hand, is more rooted in working memory.

These phenomena also differ in what people do not see. With change blindness, people do not see some major, obvious change in the visual environment. With inattentional blindness, people do not see some “unexpected but predictable” stimuli.

Age may be another difference. Some studies have found that young children (ages 9 years and under) are associated with higher levels of inattentional blindness. In contrast, older adults (ages 65 years and older) with conditions like dementia are more likely to experience change blindness.

The cause of change blindness is changes in your visual attention. Beyond that, it results because the brain finds it difficult to encode visual information into working memory. This type of memory is part of the executive functioning of the brain that helps you make decisions or solve problems. If certain visual information isn’t as relevant a task, change blindness may occur.

Distractions and information overload cause Inattentional blindness. The brain can only focus on so many things at once – visual or otherwise – and so much of the visual field at once. The brain filters out things it doesn’t deem important so that it can focus on what is meaningful in a certain situation.

It may not be totally possible to stop instances where you experience change blindness or inattentional blindness.

That said, there are things you can do to limit distractions and better tune into your visual environment:

There are several risks with these types of blindness. You may risk having accidents where keen attention to the surrounding environment is important. It may also affect how you view different situations, such as crimes.

Specific risks include the inability to:

  • notice changes on the road, leading to automobile or pedestrian accidents
  • notice safety risks or other important changes on job sites (construction or air traffic control)
  • remember situations exactly as they happened, which may have implications in court (eyewitness testimony)
  • recognize changes in social environments (like asking the wrong waiter for your check at a restaurant)

Do vision issues cause change blindness and inattentional blindness?

No. These types of “blindness” refer to issues with information processing and not actual issues with the eyes.

Can change blindness and inattentional blindness be treated?

There is no medical cure for these phenomena. Instead, they are “treated” with awareness and by removing avoidable distractions.

What leads to inattentional blindness when driving?

Anything from daydreaming to texting to using a GPS device may cause inattentional blindness. Talking on a phone — even with a hands-free device — or to passengers are other distractions.

Consider making an appointment with a doctor or healthcare professional if you feel that change blindness or inattentional blindness is affecting your everyday life.

While some omissions from your perception may be typical, but they may also be a sign of visual conditions or other health issues, such as dementia.

Knowing these two phenomena can help you gain a better awareness of your visual environment. Likewise, removing distractions may prevent accidents and other risks.