See through the attentional blindness

I’ve lately seen several articles describing “attentional blindness”** as a problem. These articles are usually about the supposed magic of being mindful as the path to a new age of living, and most of the writers like to harken back to the olden days when everything seemed so much simpler. They're wrong.

Thoreau said:

Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e., we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.

(Journal, 2 July 1857.) Thoreau had it mostly wrong, too.

I’m all for mindfulness and attentive living, but the answer to being a good photographer isn’t to fight 100,000 years of human evolution—it’s to embrace it. 

Attentional blindness is a simple concept: when you think about something, all your senses are brought to bear to enhance your cognitive abilities to gather information about it, and to ignore anything that’s not related to it. That’s how we are able to pick up a conversation across a crowded room, and how we navigate a rocky path to the summit. The consciousness selects out sensory information to actively think about, and this is what people call “mindfulness.” Thoreau wanted us to pay more attention to the things around us by concentrating on them more.

Although “attentional blindness” gets a bad rap as this terrible thing that cuts us off from the rest of the world, it’s not a bad thing at all. It’s the solution that allows us to concentrate and be productive, even in the midst of chaos. It’s not blindness at all—it’s the consequence of focused attention. When the pejorative phrase “attentional blindness” is used, you know that the author is actually complaining about the subject of attention, and not the function of the brain. That was Thoreau’s issue: he was judging what it was he thought people were paying attention to.

The problem is that such a perspective deals with only a fraction of what the human mind is capable of handling. Our working, or “short term,” memory (the part the consciousness uses) can handle only a handful of things at once. Psychologists use the very scientific word “chunks” to describe the elements that consciousness can juggle. Regardless whether the chunks are digits, letters, words, or something else, the average person can maintain about four of them at a time. (Cowan, Nelson (2001). “The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24: 87–185.) 

That's a nice “chunk” of info to work with if we are concentrating on a specific problem we need to solve, but that’s not much attention to work with to observe the world. To use consciousness as the approach to “mindfulness” is rather misguided. There’s a lot more power in the mind than that. While Thoreau is walking in the woods and finding what his short-term memory is looking to hold, his mind is absorbing and processing scores of sources of sensory input, and enabling him to walk as he will. His footing is sure, he is oriented in time and space, he is aware of signs of danger—all while his conscious mind is busy pondering the pond.

For our purposes as photographers, grasping the concept of “attentional blindness” can help us improve capturing images. Photographers want to shift as many things to the mind as possible, and leave the consciousness as empty as possible. Using the mind is how we find the decisive moment in a rapidly unfolding situation—and indeed how we even determine whether a moment is worth capturing. The consciousness is a distraction to seeing the moment.

The awareness of line and form is an example of using the mind: if the photographer is "seeing" too intently, the context of the whole is lost.

The awareness of line and form is an example of using the mind: if the photographer is "seeing" too intently, the context of the whole is lost.

Contrary to what Thoreau and the “mindfulness” crowd think, they aren’t seeing anything. The process of active thinking means the consciousness is focused and filtering the environment. Once something is within our “intellectual ray,” we have ceased to perceive the rest of what’s going on. When we go looking for something, we stop seeing everything else.

What we want instead is to let go of thinking so that we can be absorbed in the moment in which we find ourselves and see the totality of it. It’s a state of mind, and it’s one in which “seeing” uses every sense, instead of just the visual one. Combining our detached observations with what we hear and feel is what allows the photographer to “predict” the time to trip the shutter. Pursuing the subject with active thought will result only in missed shots. It’s when we open up and embrace the attentional blindness that the impressive pictures emerge. 

So go bravely forth attentionally blind, and start seeing the world.

**(Most psychologists and writers refer to it as “inattentional blindness.” That label makes no sense. The “blindness” comes from hyperfocus—not inattention. Just as I won't perpetuate a theory that doesn't make sense, I won't use terms that don't make sense.)