This form of vision loss is also known as perceptual blindness. It involves not noticing people, objects, or events within your line of vision because your attention has been diverted.
Have you ever missed seeing something that was right before your eyes? This is a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness, which is when you miss objects, people, or events within your line of vision because your attention is elsewhere.
Everyone experiences inattentional blindness to some degree. This is because our mind has a limit as to how much information it can process at once.
A little inattentional blindness generally doesn’t harm anyone. But left unchecked, it can lead to car accidents, medical mishaps, or other serious problems, especially when combined with alcohol or substance use.
Let’s take a look at inattentional blindness, the main causes, and how to prevent it from causing serious consequences.
Perceptual blindness is another word for inattentional blindness.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines inattentional blindness as “a failure to notice unexpected but perceptible stimuli in a visual scene while one’s attention is focused on something else in the scene.”
A different but closely related phenomenon is change blindness, which is when you’re unable to notice changes in your visual field during a brief disturbance, such as when you blink your eyes or when your vision is obscured for a few seconds.
One experiment provides a classic example of inattentional blindness. Participants watched two groups of people pass a ball and were instructed to count the number of passes one of the groups made. The participants were so focused on the passes that they didn’t notice a person in a gorilla suit walking amongst the players.
The sleight of hand performed during a magic trick is another example of this phenomenon.
Inattentional blindness and change blindness are especially problematic during driving.
While everyone can experience some amount of inattentiveness in daily life, certain factors can heighten this while we’re operating a motor vehicle.
It’s well known that alcohol can make us less attentive while driving and lead to serious consequences. But experts have learned that driving while using a phone (either talking or texting) can be just as dangerous because it divides your attention and increases inattentional blindness.
According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2020, 8% of fatal crashes, 14% of injury crashes, and 13% of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes were associated with distracted driving.
The best way to address inattentional blindness and change blindness while driving is to avoid the most common causes, like alcohol intoxication and phone usage.
When it comes to phone usage, it doesn’t matter if you’re holding the phone in your hand or not. Simply making a phone call, ordering food over the phone, glancing at your phone for a second — all of these need to be strictly avoided while driving.
Other distracting activities that should be avoided while driving include:
- eating or drinking
- applying makeup
- watching videos
- fiddling with your GPS device
Inattentional blindness occurs because of the brain’s inability to process every piece of visual information it’s presented with.
Vision isn’t just something that happens with your eyes — your brain has to process the visual stimuli. But there’s a limit to how much data your brain can manage at any given moment. Our brains are constantly filtering out unimportant or distracting information.
Various factors can influence which pieces of visual information make it into our consciousness. Factors may include how meaningful we perceive an item to be, the current state of our attention span, and what our cognitive load looks like at any given moment.
Some experts believe that we actually do perceive most of the world around us but that we quickly forget it. This may lead to symptoms of inattentional blindness, sometimes referred to as inattentional amnesia.
Certain people may be at higher risk of inattentional blindness than others. For example,
Inattentional blindness refers to missing visual or spatial cues. Everyone experiences it a little differently, but symptoms may include:
- not noticing people, objects, or events occurring within your field of vision
- immediately forgetting what you’ve just seen
- experiencing these moments of inattention more intensely when you’re experiencing cognitive overload, or multiple distractions at once
It’s not possible to fully prevent inattentional blindness, but you can limit the factors that may make it worse.
Common sense measures can also help. These might include:
- decreasing other distractions while driving, such as looking at your cell phone, drinking a beverage, or changing the radio station
- making sure to get enough sleep
- reducing medications or substances that decrease attention
Besides preventing inattentional blindness from getting worse and avoiding common factors that can increase risk, there’s no treatment for inattentional blindness at this time.
This study looked at neurosurgeons who had participated in an 8-week mindfulness program. After completing the program, the participants experienced fewer errors related to inattention blindness. Researchers concluded that this type of practice may be a positive way to address inattentional blindness and increase attention among physicians.
Inattentional blindness is when you don’t consciously register seeing visual stimuli that pass through your line of vision. It occurs because the brain naturally filters out information that seems less important.
Although inattentional blindness is a fact of life, it can worsen if your attention span is already overloaded or you’re distracted. Unchecked inattentional blindness can have serious consequences, such as car accidents.
If you’re finding it particularly difficult to concentrate or if you’re having more moments of inattentional blindness than is typical for you, contact a healthcare professional.