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How Good are You at Paying Attention?

Do you think you would notice if someone you were giving directions to was suddenly replaced by someone else? Yes? Perhaps not! 

Researchers at Harvard University tested fifteen people in such a scenario. The unsuspecting subjects of the experiment were walking down the street and a researcher dressed as a “passer-by” (who was in fact part of the research team) asked them for directions. As the subject was giving the directions to the passer-by, two workmen rudely barged between them carrying a door. 

In the brief moment that the subject was behind the door, the passer-by (researcher) switched places with one of the workmen. The subject was left giving directions to a different person who was taller, wearing different clothes and had a different voice. Eight of the fifteen subjects failed to spot the change!

This is a classic example of what is called “change blindness” when your attention is so closely focused on a task that you fail to notice a very significant change in your visual field. The problem is not divided attention but limited capacity to process attention in the conscious mind. 

This highlights the fact that attention is primarily a conscious activity. The visual experience of change requires focused visual attention, which takes up a lot of processing capacity. In the “present moment” (this is the period of short-term memory span of 1-2 seconds) the conscious mind has a processing capacity of only 127 bits of information per second or about five separate items of thought (plus or minus two). That’s why we miss things at a conscious level. And that's why we need to pay more conscious attention to what's happening around us.

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