The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Singularity of Focus Can Distort What You See

Inattentional blindness has benefits and detriments.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston have found that having a singularity of focus can alter perceptions and create inattentional blindness (IB). In the new study, published on July 19, 2013 in Psychological Science, radiologists looking for cancer nodules were oblivious to a huge gorilla that floated across their computer screen.

Have you ever had the experience of being so in the ‘zone’ that your laser-like focus turned into a type of tunnel vision? The ability to direct your focus and block out distractions in the periphery is key to achieving any difficult task with precision, but can also backfire.  

The researchers asked 24 radiologists to perform a familiar lung nodule detection task. The radiologists examined five scans; each scan contained an average of 10 nodules. A gorilla that was 48 times larger than the average nodule, was inserted in the final scan. The researchers found that 83 percent of radiologists did not report seeing the gorilla.

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As a writer, I often miss typos because my mind is so focused on the content and communicating ideas that my eyes glide over glaring errors. This is why having a second pair of eyes proofread writing whenever possible is imperative. The researchers at BWH tracked the eye-movements of the radiologists and found that the majority of those who missed the gorilla looked directly at it.

When focusing on a difficult task the researchers at BWH found that even people with a high level of expertise are vulnerable to IB. Trafton Drew, PhD, post-doctoral researcher at BWH and lead author on this study said, "When engaged in a demanding task, attention can act like a set of blinders, making it possible for stimuli to pass, undetected, right in front of our eyes. We found that even experts are vulnerable to this phenomenon.”

Bird’s Eye View vs. Worm’s Eye View

As a triathlete, I learned how to flip between taking a bird’s eye view and a worm’s eye view throughout every competition. For example, if I was strategizing how to get to the front of the pack on the bike I would zoom in on very specific competitors and focus on advancing past them one-by-one like a Pac-Man. I would become so laser-focused and immersed in the moment of achieving the task at hand that the rest of the world completely dissolved. However, in order to succeed over the long haul of an Ironman race I would have to snap out of a state of laser-like focus — zoom out — and take inventory from a bird’s eye perspective. Flipping between a bird's and worm's eye view was key to maintaining a mindset of peak performance all the way to the finish line.

Can you find the gorilla?

Regardless of what demanding task you are tackling, the best way to avoid the backlash of inattentional blindness is to consciously remind yourself to zoom out from the worm’s eye view periodically and take a bird’s eye view. Having myopic vision and singularity of focus can cause you to miss the big picture and makes you vulnerable to making mistakes.

"The radiologists missed the gorillas not because they could not see them, but because the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas," explained Jeremy Wolfe, senior psychologist and director of the Visual Attention Laboratory at BWH. "This study helps illustrate that what we become focused on becomes the center of our world, and it shapes what we can and cannot see."

Conclusion: Mindfulness Training Improves Attention

We all have the power to direct our focus and guide our thoughts. Through mindfulness training you can flex your mind’s ability to hone in on details but to also zoom out and look at the world around you through a more panoramic lens. The ability to flip your perspective and see things from a different point of view also applies to the explanatory style you choose to take about life.

You can decide what you want to see in the world around you and if the glass is half full or half empty. Without being a Polyanna, you can decide to focus your attention on the positive things in the world around you—in doing so the negativity will literally cease to exist in your perception of reality. Athletics is a great way to train your mind to look on the bright side and find silver linings. Dwelling on negativity sabotages your odds of winning any competition in life and sport. 

The researchers at BWH conclude that even expert searchers typically only see what they are looking for. Without mindfulness training it is easy to remain oblivious to glaringly obvious things that are directly in front of your eyes. The researchers at BWH hope that their findings will lead more expert searchers to recognize the important role of attention in determining what the searcher will see and what he or she may miss.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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