Unattentional Blindness – Expect the Unexpected

A very odd thing can happen if your mind is focussed on a task that requires a high degree of attention. You may not see everything that you should, that could have a bearing on the outcome of your performance.

In some fields of endeavour — most notably, in athletics wherein such powers of concentration can make the difference between victory and defeat — such attentive absorption is upheld as the standard necessary for the achievement of perfection. However, in some circumstances that require high levels of visual awareness, perhaps such centralization of attention isn’t the pathway to a successful outcome.

A well-known experiment conducted by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois, demonstrated how poor some people’s visual awareness can be when they’re asked to concentrate on a specific task. In their experiment, they show subjects a video of a team of people passing around a basketball. The subjects are asked to count the number of times the team passes the basketball. In the course of the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks onto the screen, stops, faces the camera, beats his chest, and then casually walks out of the camera’s field of recording. Amazingly — and repeatedly — fifty percent of the subjects who watch this video don’t notice the gorilla.

In a sobering demonstration of how much can be missed if you’re focussed too much on one thing, NASA researchers conducted an experiment with experienced commercial airline pilots. The researchers put these pilots into a flight simulator with a heads-up display. They then had the pilots conduct several routine landings in IFR conditions. In some of the landing approaches, the experimenters added an image of a large commercial airplane parked on the runway just as the sim pilots were breaking through the cloud base, to spot the runway for landing. One quarter of the pilots in the simulator landed right through the airplane parked on the runway. They, quite literally, didn’t notice the parked airplane, even though it filled a chunk of their simulator’s cockpit display.

The pilots in the NASA experiment suffered from inattentional blindness. The subjects watching the Gorilla-in-our-Midst video, suffered from it too. People’s perceptual systems evolve to see what they’re most familiar with seeing. If they’re used to seeing a gorilla in the middle of a basketball game, then they’ll see it. If they’re not used to seeing a gorilla in the middle of a basketball game, then they won’t.

It seems to be the same for pilots. If pilots are used to seeing airplanes on the runway upon which they are set up to land, then they’ll see such airplanes. If they’re not used to — or prepared for — such a scenario, then there’s a chance that they might not cue to the rogue aircraft’s unexpected appearance.

Research is showing that enhancing your ability to focus on one aspect of a task diverts your attention away from any other aspect of your task. Put another way, your ability to detect unexpected events withers the more your attention is focussed on one particular thing. This may seem rather obvious; nevertheless, these empirically-derived results appear rather sobering. In the cockpit of an airplane, as shown by the NASA experiment, inattentional blindness can lead a pilot into a heap of trouble.

Looking isn’t the same as seeing. Our senses can take in limitless quantities of information; but the human brain can’t process all that it takes in. The brain scans for information until something catches its attention. And it likes to settle with the familiar, at the expense of what might actually be there, unprocessed and, thus, unseen.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the consequences of inattentional blindness were it to consume the mindset of a pilot. Heavy workloads and stressful situations are the likely precursors to its negative perceptual effect. Perhaps in IFR, perhaps while joining a busy circuit, perhaps while dealing with a mechanical issue or an emergency situation in flight: these are the types of scenarios within which such blindness can obscure an embryonic accident.

When it becomes impossible to attend to all the stimuli thrown at you in a given situation, you may fail to see objects or stimuli that you’re not expecting to see, even though they are as plain as the proverbial day.

Bottom line: beware the nefarious subtleties of fixation. Clustering your attention on one thing in an airplane isn’t a good thing. Keep your eyes open to see, not just to look. And always expect the unexpected.