-- Randy Dotinga
WEDNESDAY, April 20 (HealthDay News) -- A new study offers
insight into "inattention blindness," a phenomenon that causes
people to lose sight of seemingly obvious things while they focus
intensely on something else.
The study authors, in an effort to shed light on how inattention
blindness may make drivers more prone to traffic accidents if they
are talking on their cell phone, used a video from earlier research
on what is called "selective attention" as an example of how people
can lose focus on everything around them while being very focused
on one thing.
The video shows a small group of people passing around two
basketballs. Viewers are told to count how many times the ball is
passed by the players in white shirts. Many viewers focus so
intensely on the task that they fail to notice a person in a
gorilla suit enter the frame and walk between the players.
"Because people are different in how well they can focus their attention, this may influence whether you'll see something you're not expecting -- in this case, a person in a gorilla suit walking across the computer screen," study lead author Janelle Seegmiller, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Utah, said in a university news release.
In the new study, the researchers tested 197 students, aged 18
to 35, who hadn't seen the video before. The subjects had
previously been tested with a set of math and memory problems, and
had to get 80 percent right to be accepted into the study.
The study authors were focusing on something called
working-memory capacity, which "is how much you can process in your
working memory at once," Seegmiller explained. "Working memory is
the stuff you are dealing with right at that moment, like trying to
solve a math problem or remember your grocery list. It's not
The subjects watched the video, and researchers measured their
working-memory capacity. Again, subjects had to get 80 percent of
the basketball passes right for their results to be analyzed.
According to the report, 58 percent of the students noticed the
gorilla, while the rest did not. Among those who accurately counted
the number of passes of the ball, 67 percent of those with high
working-memory capacity noticed the gorilla, but only 36 percent of
those with low working-memory capacity did.
In other words, people with a high working-memory capacity are
not only better at focusing their attention; they are better able
to switch the focus of their attention and multitask when
necessary, the researchers explained.
The findings may explain why some people are more prone to
inattention blindness than others.
The study is scheduled for publication in the May issue of the
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and
Study co-author Jason Watson, assistant professor of psychology,
said: "The potential implications are that if we are all paying
attention as we are driving, some individuals may have enough extra
flexibility in their attention to notice distractions that could
But, he continued, "that doesn't mean people ought to be
self-distracting by talking on a cell phone while driving -- even
if they have better control over their attention. Our prior
research has shown that very few individuals [only 2.5 percent] are
capable of handling driving and talking on a cell phone without
The California Department of Motor Vehicles has details about
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