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Attentional Blink: Definition & Experiment

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

The attentional blink is a half-second of perceptual impairment that occurs between one event and another. In this lesson, we will examine an attentional blink experiment and some theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon.

Have you ever tried to pay attention to multiple things at a time, only to find that you can't focus completely on any of them? The mind has a limited capacity for attention. It sifts through large amounts of input so we can focus on what's important and ignore distractions; however, some of these distractions may be important. For example, imagine that you're driving down the street at rush hour, and notice that the driver in front of you has slammed on his brakes. A split-second later, while you are still busy processing what just happened, a deer darts onto the road from the right. At this point, it's highly unlikely that you will be able to process the second event with enough time to react properly.

During that very short amount of time between one event and another, you have a 'blind spot' in your attention. This is known as the attentional blink, and it typically lasts for half a second. It's as though you're blinking your eyes and missing potentially critical information while your lids are closed. Let's discuss an experiment that first allowed scientists to measure this phenomenon.

Attentional Blink Experiment

The term 'attentional blink' was first used by psychologists Raymond, Shapiro, and Arnell in 1992. In their first experiment, they presented letters and numbers to participants in a rapid succession of ten items per second in a method called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). In each series, all of the figures were black except for one white letter, and participants were asked to identify that letter. They were also asked whether they saw the black letter 'X' after the white letter appeared. The researchers called the white letter the 'first target' and the letter 'X' the 'second target.'

The second target was only displayed half of the time. When it was shown, it appeared between 100 and 800 milliseconds (ms) after the first target. The researchers defined attentional blink as occurring when participants correctly identified the first target but incorrectly reported the second target after 100 to 500 ms, or up to half a second, of time passed between them.

Errors identifying the second target happened less as the time interval between targets increased. In other words, the closer together the targets appear, the more likely we are to experience an attentional blink. As follow ups, many other experiments have been conducted, in order to provide a better understanding of this phenomenon.

Let's discuss some prominent theories used to explain what causes attentional blink.

As we've just discussed, there's a definitive procedure for measuring attentional blink. However, there's still some debate about what causes this phenomenon, as demonstrated by the five theories below.

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