Monday, April 24, 2017

The Mindful Allocation of (In)attention

I take my seat in the trendy, dimly lit restaurant, and accept the menu from the waiter. I rummage in my purse, feeling for my phone. I open a magnification app and turn the flashlight on, tweaking the settings for my visual needs. I ask a friend to “orient me” by pointing out the menus headings.  I then spend the next several minutes absorbed with the task.

I realize I’ve missed the conversation. I’m the last to decide. Because I am only seeing a couple words at a time, I’ve been forming a mental representation of the menu that I slowly fill in. I try to memorize every item; memorizing is easier than rereading descriptions. I pan back to the most appealing section. I try to “skim,” which for me means deciphering the words most visually identifiable based on font, spacing, and length. I notice the conversation lull.

I ask what others are getting, thinking I may just order the same thing to make this task simpler. Yes, I’ll have what she’s having. I give up on my search, shove my phone in my purse, and re-engage with the group. Determining what to order at a restaurant requires focused attention; not (entirely) because the decision is challenging; the process of reading a menu is cognitively demanding.

It is obvious that low vision makes seeing more difficult. This increased difficulty means using sight requires more attentional resources. The process of magnifying, scanning, spatially orienting, and memorizing is more cognitively demanding, and affects tasks relying on sight including reading a menu, reviewing mail, filling out paperwork, or checking an event in my calendar. By requiring additional attention and effort, these seemingly simple tasks can distract me from what is happening around me.

Everyone becomes inattentive when cognitive resources are allocated to another task. This experience is referred to as inattentional blindness, a psychological term used to describe the phenomena of not perceiving something in sight due to lack of attention, and not lack of vision.  Inattentional blindness is often the source of lay psychology experiments; see a great example here (

In recent years, I’ve felt plagued by the propensity of my actual blindness to exacerbate inattentional blindness. Millennials are notorious for multitasking; texting, snapping, posting, tweeting, and more while simultaneously out with friends, in class, or on vacation. I counteract this stereotype; I cannot casually respond to a facebook post at dinner. I would have to turn up my brightness, not-so-subtly hold my phone 3 inches from my face, double-check word by word for typos, and inevitably miss almost ten minutes of conversation. As a result, I have often envied others’ engagement with their smart phones, ability to read news articles in class, and facility to use multiple windows at once on their computers.

I share this not to invoke pity or sympathy for the additional attentional resources required of low vision. I certainly do not wish to sound ungrateful for the countless ways adaptive technology improves my daily experience. Instead, I wish to offer a positive reframing from which I continue to learn. My inattentional blindness forces mindfulness. Because the pitfalls of multitasking are more pronounced for me, I cannot feasibly spend time perusing social media, responding to emails, or reading the news when I am attending to something else.

Instead, I deliberately allocate the limited attentional resources I have. I just returned from a long walk at the lake with my dog. I spent 20 minutes catching up with family on the phone. I spent 10 minutes listening to a podcast. I spent the remaining 30 minutes appreciating the mountains, hearing the birds, and smelling the harbingers of rain. I still enjoy my own form of multitasking at times, yet, most attempts are frankly too attentionally demanding. My attention is better allocated elsewhere.

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