In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kanheman describes the idea of attention being a limited resource and observes how people engaged in an intense, high mental effort activity are effectively blind in such instances.
“The defining feature of System 2, in this story, is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only System 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.”
In a famous experiment conducted by two researchers at Harvard, they performed the following exercise:
Students were asked to watch a video where two teams were passing a ball around and asked to count the number of passes that a particular team completes. Focusing on the ball is an activity that requires significant attention and renders some viewers oblivious to other things that are happening in the video.
In the video, a person in gorilla costume moves across the screen and yet remains invisible to around 50% of the participants. This is because when you’re intensely focused on a single activity, you’re prone to missing out on other details.
You can find out more about the experiment and subsequent book they wrote titled “The Invisible Gorilla” on their website.
The second observation is that as you become skilled at a task, its demand for energy decreases, meaning that lesser attention is required for its completion.
“A general ‘law of least effort’ applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”
I’ll share a few examples where I’ve observed how engaging in a high-attention activity blinds me to my surroundings and where an increase in skill level corresponds directly with lesser need for attention.
When I’d started learning how to drive a car, driving in traffic meant that my attention was fully on the road and I had almost zero awareness of what was going on in the car. I was working at my maximum cognitive load capacity. Compare this with people who are experienced drivers and you’ll see how they require much lesser attention when driving.
The second example that comes to mind is when I started learning how to play football. Keeping the ball near your feet under control, moving with it and looking for players to pass requires a tremendous amount of concentration. In the initial stages, moving with the ball while looking up is a difficult task. You are concerned with keeping the ball close to your feet so you don’t lose it and that activity takes up almost all of your attention. This means that looking up for a pass becomes difficult. In this case as well, greater skill equates to less attention. With time, moving with the ball becomes easier. Experienced footballers rarely need to look down while playing. They focus their attention on looking for the perfect pass.
This inability to perceive everything that you’re physically looking at is called as inattentional blindness.
The lesson here is that we should be aware of the possibility of missing out on minor, yet important details when we’re focusing our attention narrowly on a task.
The second is to treat attention as a commodity available only in limited quantity and to realize that at times when the cognitive load is high and we’re stretched, we should avoid doing multiple tasks at the same time. It is only when you’re sufficiently skilled at a task, should you attempt to multitask.
In colloquial terms, these details are often referred to as hiding in plain sight. A great article on how Nolan uses this technique of misdirection in The Prestige can be found here.
In fact, almost all magic tricks are based on exploiting this defect. A line from the movie Now You See Me sums it up nicely.
“Come in close. Closer. Because the more you think you see, the easier it’ll be to fool you, because, what is seeing? You’re looking, but what you’re really doing is filtering, interpreting, searching for meaning. My job, (is) to take that most precious of gifts you give me, your attention, and use it against you. Because the closer you look, the less you see.”