"Attentional blink" causes you to forget what's in front of your eyes

Sometimes, when taking in new information, your eyes blink. Sometimes your mind does too. This special "blink" might explain why you sometimes get half-second amnesia, and forget what you've just seen.

The experiment sounds simple. A group of subjects are shown a series of cards, or computer images, most of which have numbers on them. They are asked to identify the cards with letters on them, and remember what the letters are. The stream of cards starts up, and the person is shown a letter. They remember it perfectly easily, but when the sequence stops, they're told that they saw two letters. The second letter was presented less than half a second after the first one.

What's interesting is, they saw the letter. Brain imaging shows that it, briefly, registered in their mind. That mind was still dealing with the first letter, though, and couldn't process the second. When intentionally taking in information, attention gives out for about half a second. As when we absentmindedly throw important papers in the trash along with junk mail, and then realize what we've done and have to scrape eggshells off our tax documents, our attention is held elsewhere and we can't really come to grips with something new. This is called "attentional blink."

There is an exception to this. One study showed people a series of images on a screen. When they saw a noun, or a name, they were to remember it. This was called the "target" word. The second word, called the "probe" word, flashed on the screen soon afterwards and people missed it - except when it was their own name. For some reason, we don't experience attention blink when it comes to our names. But if you think one's name takes no effort to remember, think again. The study also flashed the subject's names as the first word, and followed it by another name. They missed the second name entirely. Are we inattentive? Is there something about our name that manages to circumvent this one mental process? Or are we just self-centered jerks? You make the call.

Image: Tiago Sousa

[Via An Attentional Blink?, Personal Names and the Attentional Blink, Word Meanings Can Be Accessed But Not Reported.]