Friday, November 6, 2009

What Was I Doing?

Two weeks ago Western Washington University released a study on "inattentional blindness," which means you don't see something because you're paying attention to something else. Specifically, they wanted to know how much talking on a cell phone "blinds" you to other sensory input. Test subjects were in one of four states: talking on a cell, walking in pairs, listening to music on an MP3, or just walking along without benefit of electronic or human companionship.

The cell phone users were far more "blind" than the other subjects. Three-quarters of them failed to notice a clown on a unicycle who rode past them. The cell users walked more slowly and acknowledged fewer people they passed. Essentially, like Gertrude Stein's famous comment about Oakland, there was far less "there" there.

This state applies to other electronics users as well -- such as, for instance, the two pilots who missed Milwaukee because their laptops absorbed their attention more than did landing a plane. Also less "there" are all those people on the other end of your cell who are simultaneously playing computer solitaire or checking their FaceBook pages or playing WoW (you know who you are).

What struck me about the Western Washington study, however, was how much it applies to writers I know -- including me -- even when we're NOT using electronics. If we're thinking about a story in progress, we're often not there, either. We're in the story setting, or mentally rehearsing plot twists, or carrying on a separate conversation with the protagonist. Do writers have more inattentional blindness than other people? Now that's a study I'd like to see.

8 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

I'm sorry. What did you say?

Jonathan Sherwood said...

I have big-time writer's blindness. I'm notorious for missing thruway exits on trips because I'm lost in plot machinations.

sonyaotto said...

What about reader's blindness and deafness? I am often so absorbed in my book that I don't hear when people are yelling at me, and when I walk and read (I know, I know, one of the weird that doesn't listen to a personal music device but carries a paperback everywhere and reads while walking to work...) I notice very little.

qiihoskeh said...

That would be an interesting study, though less likely to get funding than a cellphone or ipod one, unfortunately. Maybe that would explain why I have trouble writing: I'm too attentive to my surroundings.

BTW I'm afraid I'll miss seeing your pool grudge match; I've been too sick to make hotel and plane reservations.

Nancy Kress said...

Feel better soon!

DavidD said...

Wonderful post. I was thinking about posting on a similar topic of Intent VS Absorption that I have been thinking about. Hmmm... maybe now's the time.
I like your thoughtful posts Nancy and would invite you to check out a posting on my blog relating to science fiction and spirituality.
http://www.ddamico.net/wordpress/

qiihoskeh said...

Thanks, Nancy! (I'll try; it's a chronic thing which has been getting worse).

I would like to have seen the Alien Languages panel as well.

Daniel said...

I don't think a lot about how my stories will progress because they're mostly make-it-up-as-I-go. I don't really have that problem listing to music or talking on the phone, either. However, put me in front of my computer and I'm gone. If my wife needs to communicate something to me, I have to physically move or turn so that my computer is not in my field of view. I don't do a lot of gaming (hardly any), just reading and programming.