Now You See it, Now You Don’t: Cognitive Blindness
October 25, 2014
By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
A few days ago, my six-year-old brought home a book from school that was considered a “right-fit”. Her assignment was to read the book to me out loud. We’ve been doing this since the start of the school year. It was a routine assignment and from what I could tell from the book’s jacket, a routine kind of book for a typical first grader.
But this was not routine. A few pages into the story, she lost much of the fluency I would have expected given the book’s vocabulary. And why? Because she was distracted by the pictures.
“That man is not wearing a helmet,” she said, looking at a man on a motorcycle depicted in one scene.
Another character was not buckled-up on the bus.
The pages midway through were stapled in a way that eliminated a few segments of a person’s torso and we spent some time looking at how the artist dotted a page to suggest windows in a skyscraper—not a good choice, in her opinion.
Kids have a strong sense of truth. I’m not talking about what is possible; I’m talking about what is possible in the world we’re agreeing to imagine. My daughter has never once questioned why Lyle, Lyle Crocodile lives in a brownstone and plays chess and bakes cookies, but forget to give a man a helmet, and you’re asking for trouble.
For us the trouble manifested in what soon became a difficult task: actually reading. It was only because I knew my daughter’s personality and her own artistic concern for detail that I was able to look at the experience for what is was, and not a sign that years of work on reading had been erased from her memory and she could no longer recognize the word “thank”.
A study discussed in a recent issue of AAA Magazine helped give credence to my assumption. Yes—there is such a thing as being distracted to the point of not “seeing” what is right in front of one’s eyes.
The story looks at distracted driving and cognitive blindness. It cites work done by researchers at the University of Utah who found that using hands-free, menu-based navigational systems or Siri while driving was a bigger distraction than talking on a hands-free cellphone.
According to the article, researchers, “analyzed reaction times, brain activity, eye movements and other factors linked by prior research to distracted driving.”
Participants had a primary activity, driving in a simulator or an actual car. A headband would flash a green or red light. If it was green, they were to press a switch.
Then they were asked to do what are described as secondary tasks such as change a radio station or listen to a text or email using voice commands, or to use Apple’s Siri to compose a message or change their Facebook status.
If you’d like to see how these tasks registered on the cognitive-distraction ratings, based on a scale with 5 being the highest distraction, I suggest you click here for the full story while you are not at the wheel of a car.
Suffice it to say, hands-free is not distraction free. Sure, performing complex mental math is the worst thing you can do, not that I’ll complain about not forgoing such activities, but coming in at 4.1 is “Hands-free Siri interactions” such as listening to and sending messages, updating Facebook, Twitter, and modifying or reviewing calendar appointments.
It’s a stretch to say that what was going on with my daughter’s reading is linked with this type of distraction, and to be sure, the authors of the study seem to be calling attention to our misplaced comfort with driving while “talking” to our devices. It’s not the use of our hands that causes an increase in accidents (although talking on a cellphone increases one’s risk of accident by four) it’s the use of our minds.
I sensed that my daughter’s mind was being pulled in two competing directions. The pictures were “wrong” as far as she was concerned. And if that was the case, how could any word be right?
Our children are not machines who can learn a skill and perform it flawlessly no matter the distractions. Sometimes, like our “hands-free” fantasies of seamless multitasking, the distractions keep us from seeing what should be so clear.
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