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Inattentional Blindness – What?!?

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Brain Health Expert: Patricia Faust, MGS

If you are an older driver, do you find that it isn’t as easy as it used to be to navigate through traffic?

Have you found that the radio might be a nuisance and a distraction? Have you made some bad decisions about making left turns?

These are all problems that may arise when we get older, as much as we don’t want to believe them. There are reasons for these changes, other than just aging.

“Our vision may be compromised by cataracts or glaucoma.”

Inattentional Blindness Can Cause Serious Driving Problems:

As we get older, we lose out on distraction filters and it becomes hard to concentrate. Our vision may be compromised by cataracts or glaucoma. We may not hear police and fire sirens until they are close by. And worst of all, our focus and attention are not as sharp as they used to be. And then there is inattentional blindness!! I know that one sounds ridiculous. But inattentional blindness can cause serious driving problems.

What is inattentional blindness? Inattentional blindness is a psycho/logical lack of attention that is not associated with defects or deficits. What this means is: it is an event where someone fails to see an unexpected stimulus in plain sight. We have many distractions when we are driving. The biggest distraction culprit is our cell phones.

Driving is a very complex task for our brains. When we add a cell phone to the mix, we diminish our capabilities of being a good driver. It doesn’t matter if it is a hands-free phone because our attention is now directed to the person we are talking to, not the many challenges that driving presents.

“If you become hyper-focused on reaching a destination or exit, you can miss other things happening around you on the road.”

Distracted Driving:

How do you tell the difference between distracted driving and inattentional blindness? Distracted driving means that a driver is not paying full attention to the single task of driving. This can mean that you are texting, eating, or talking on the phone.

Inattentional blindness means that a person is missing critical information even when their eyes are focused on the road ahead. It can happen when you are very focused on only one thing while driving. For example, if you become hyper-focused on reaching a destination or exit, you can miss other things happening around you on the road.

Why is this particular brain function/nonfunction so important that I am writing about it? About six weeks ago, I was driving my granddaughter to Yellow Springs, Ohio. This eclectic little town and college are in the middle of a very rural area. I was not familiar with the area, so I had asked for directions from SIRI. I turned off the radio, my granddaughters were in the back seat, and I was very focused on the directions that SIRI was giving me.

My Inattentional Blindness Story:

We were about a mile from our destination, and SIRI told me to stop at the stop sign and then turn left. I was concentrating on finding the stop sign. After rounding a bend, I saw it. So, I stopped and noticed the traffic.

Cars were stopped at the stop sign and when I saw that no one was moving out into the intersection I figured it was my turn to make the left-hand turn. I drove into the intersection and was met with horns and another car hitting me! Luckily, none of us were hurt. When I told my story to the state patrolman, he clarified that I believed it was a four-way stop intersection.

I told him, yes and then he proceeded to tell me that there was a sign just beneath the stop sign that warned me that the cross traffic had the right-of-way. It was not a four-way stop! This is my inattentional blindness story. I did not see that other sign. I was so focused on seeing the stop sign and turning left that as far as I was concerned – there was no other sign.

“It can never be fully avoided because our brains are wired to not absorb every single stimulus presented to us.”

It Can Never Be Fully Avoided:

So here is the existing problem for all of us that drive. Inattentional blindness can never be fully avoided because our brains are wired to not absorb every single stimulus presented to us. If they were, our brains would be bombarded with information, and we would never know what critical information is. However, while driving, there are steps you can take to decrease your chances of missing important cues due to inattentional blindness.

Here Are A Couple Of Steps To Decrease The Risk Of Inattentional Blindness:

  • Minimize distractions and maximize attention. Put your cellphone away. Even if you are not directly texting someone back or browsing the internet while driving, your attention could easily wonder if your screen lights up, causing you to miss things while on the road.
  • Look for cues. Road signs often warn of potential hazards but so do your surroundings. Farmland means tractors or animals, forests can mean deer, mountains can mean falling rocks and cities can mean more distracted pedestrians. Stay alert and refocus when your surroundings change. (Nighbor, C. May 18, 2020.)

These tips can help you reduce the chances of looking without seeing.

This is a fun little fact to end this article. Magicians use inattentional blindness when they do their magic tricks!!

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About the Author:

Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy. My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach and consult about brain aging, brain health and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe and Canada. She has also been a frequent guest on Medicare Moment on WMKV and Cincy Lifestyles on WCPO.