Focusing on Attention Blind Spots in a Distracted Culture

ADHD, Hidden Gorillas, and Regaining Our Focus

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Have you ever read an entire chapter of a book, only to realize afterwards you couldn’t remember a thing you read? Or sent an email riddled with typos because you were distracted? Dr. Restak discusses attention blind spots.

Man reading book and drinking coffee
Typically, we don’t realize when we’re being inattentive; thus, we have attention blind spots. Photo by Ivan Kruk / Shutterstock

Attention Blind Spots

As a rule, we don’t realize when we’re being inattentive. You can think of it as an “attention blind spot.” Car accidents, for example, occur as a result of inattentive drivers and/or pedestrians. 

The military has an interesting exercise in which a Marine is suddenly asked to close his eyes and give a description of what room they’re in, where the windows are, how they would escape, and where things might happen. Then they open their eyes and see if the surroundings correspond to the descriptions. 

All of us are prone to inattention, as a famous experiment illustrates. It’s called Gorillas in our Midst, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The experiment presents you with a video of two basketball teams—a team wearing a black jersey and a team wearing a white jersey. 

While each team passes the ball back and forth, you’re instructed to count the number of passes that the white team makes. While you’re counting, something unexpected happens: A gorilla walks across the basketball court directly past the players. Most people are so focused on the ball that they don’t notice the gorilla at all. 

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons say that our picture of reality is inherently incomplete, though most of the time we don’t realize how much we miss. We think we see more than we do, and that has consequences. 

If we were aware of our limitations, we wouldn’t text and drive. Attention blind spots are especially serious in our current culture dominated by fast-response technologies. 

You’re consumed by emotion, and you fire off an email before paying attention to the consequences. Or you reach for that cell phone while on the beltway, driving a car at 70 mph, and during that tenth of a second of distraction, you are involved in a fatal accident. 

Rise of Attention Disorders

If your attention failure is chronic, you may be suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Perhaps attention disorders are a consequence of our technologically fast-paced society. Elias Aboujaoude, the director of Stanford University’s Impulse Disorders Clinic, has this to say about our attention spans:

“One reason that ADD is on the rise is that our attention span is similar to our attention span on Facebook. Look at language. People are writing the way they text. Anything complex that takes several paragraphs to develop is information overload. I think it is regressive, not progressive. It is becoming so normalized in our culture, it becomes hard to catch while it’s happening.”

The Brain’s Role in Attention

To address our brain’s attention blind spots, consider the positive benefits of learning to focus our attention like a laser. Our brain contains three vital attentional control systems. 

The first is the alerting system, which is in the frontal lobe and the parietal areas and used as the neurotransmitter, or messenger, with dopamine as the active messenger. Second is the orienting system, which is frontal and temporal, plus the temporoparietal junction, and that uses acetylcholine as the messenger. Third is an executive system, which is the frontal cortex and uses dopamine as the messenger.

Think about the brain as purpose driven. A forest, for example, can inspire a poem, a botany lecture, or a scheme for leveling the trees in the interest of development. Each goal is enhanced by attention, focusing on how to modify current status in order to achieve intended goals. 

Benefits from enhanced attention include improved frontal functioning, IQ, sequencing, context, drive, and executive control. We also have improved conflict resolution by learning what to attend to and what to ignore because we don’t want to attend to everything around us. 

We want coordination of scattered networks involving sensation, movement, emotions, and language. Any of those things can be the object of our attention. When you sustain your attention on a given object, you’ll find that it has a calming, focusing effect.

Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.