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I Forgot Why I Walked Into the Room (Again). Are We Experiencing An Attentional Blindness Epidemic?

I was working in my home office last week when my wife asked me to sign our son up for a tennis team. I logged onto the league’s website, filled out the appropriate online form and progressed to the point where I needed to input credit card information. I, of course, didn’t have my credit card handy, so I got up and walked a few rooms over to the kitchen where I believed I had left the card.

The second I entered the kitchen, I forgot what I was looking for. I noticed a few dirty dishes lying around the sink, so I put them into the dishwasher and tidied up a bit. Then, I walked back to my office, sat in my chair, looked at my computer monitor and realized I hadn’t gotten my credit card. Dammit! I got back up, walked into the kitchen and, this time, remembered to retrieve the card.

Do you ever forget why you walked into a room? The scenario described above happens to me all the time. No, it isn’t early onset dementia (at least I hope not). It’s actually quite normal. We all do it.

This phenomenon is driven by three factors. The first is our investigatory reflex, which is when we become aware of any immediate changes to our environment. The purpose of investigatory reflex is to alert us of possible dangers. When we walk into a room our brain gets distracted by investigating the new environment and we forget our original purpose for being there.

Another factor of distraction is our short attention span. The average human attention span is around eight seconds. Some scientists claim that our attention span is less than that of a gold fish, but I would argue, “what else could a gold fish possibly have on its tiny little mind?” It’s easier to focus when there are no distractions, right? At any rate, I think we can all agree that eight seconds is not a lot of time to focus on something. If it took me longer than eight seconds to walk from my office to the kitchen, that explains why I lost my train of thought.

The third factor is the myth of multitasking. In reality, multitasking is the act of alternating focus. I was working on my computer when my wife asked me to sign my son up for tennis. There was also a long "to do" list weighing on my mind. And when I entered the kitchen, I couldn't help but notice the dirty dishes and other things that needed to be put away. We can only consciously focus on one thing at a time. Unfortunately, when we switch focus from one thing to another, we experience something Dr. Robert Cialdini calls an attentional blink, which is a mental deadspot of about a half-second. This is why texting while driving is so dangerous. Conditions can change dramatically during the attentional blink that occurs between the time you finish reading that message and then refocus on the road.

Add to these factors a 24-hour news cycle where the media tries desperately to make us believe everything is news worthy and social media where almost nothing is news worthy... our brains are overwhelmed by information overload. We’re not talking about attentional blinks, but rather attentional blindness. This is why it is difficult for us to focus, prioritize and discern what is important from what is unimportant. And it explains why we forget why we walked into the room.

The next time someone asks you to pay attention, say, “I can only give you eight seconds of my undivided attention.” Sad, but true.


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