January 22, 2011

BEER GOGGLES? Geraldine Garcia

Everyday from the moment we wake up until we get back to bed at night, we are constantly surrounded by an overabundance of visual stimulation. What’s cool is that our brains are actually designed to be able to manage all of that, so we don’t have to worry about it ever being too much for our receptors to handle. It’s interesting actually, the way we’re able to focus on some things and not others, and then how we can just suddenly shift that attention from one object to the next.       
This week, one of the topics we learned about in class was visual attention. What interested me most about this lesson in particular was the concept of inattentional blindness, or being unable to perceive salient stimuli in your direct field of vision because you’re busy attending to something else. I’m sure everyone’s experienced it one way or another. It happens to me quite often, actually. Just the other day I was running late for class, and as I approached my classroom, my gaze was so focused on the classroom’s doorknob that I didn’t even notice the big sign on the door saying “NO CLASS TODAY.” :|
It got me thinking about how much inattentional blindness could affect people in more consequential situations than free cuts, like maybe in medical operations or eye witness accounts or warfare or driving! Interestingly, the article I came across was a study on the effects of alcohol on inattentional blindness. Alcohol consumption is a known cause for so many vehicular accidents all over the world, which is why its relationship with inattentional blindness is a significant matter to probe. 
In the study, participants were given drinks at a simulated cocktail lounge environment. They were told either that they received an alcoholic beverage or a non-alcoholic beverage. Some were told the truth about the drinks they got and some weren’t. This created four conditions, one where the participants were told they received alcoholic drinks and actually got them, one where they were told they received alcoholic drinks but actually got non-alcoholic drinks, one where they were told they received non-alcoholic drinks and got alcoholic drinks, and one where they were told they received non-alcoholic drinks and actually got non-alcoholic drinks. After consuming their beverages, the participants were instructed to watch an edited version of Simons and Chabris’ gorilla experiment video and tasked to count how many times the players wearing white shirts passed the ball to each other. In the middle of the video, a gorilla walks in, beats its chest and walks out of the scene. After the video, they were asked whether they noticed the gorilla in the video or not.  
The question we now ask is: did alcohol consumption affect the participants’ inattentional blindness? I’m sure you could’ve guessed that it did. Only 18% of the participants who received alcoholic drinks (whether they were told they were getting alcoholic beverages or not) noticed the gorilla appear in the video. Among the participants who did not receive alcohol, 46% percent were able to spot the gorilla when it walked in and beat its chest in the middle of the ball passing.
Based on the study, we can conclude somewhat generally that mildly intoxicated individuals are more likely to experience inattentional blindness than people who are sober. The implications of this finding on driving are consequential. Even a small amount of alcohol such as the amount used in this study can increase the likelihood of inattentional blindness. The repercussions of accidents caused by these drunk drivers could be fatal.
I guess if there is anything to learn here, it is that although our visual systems are constructed in such a way as to manage the profusion of visual stimuli that surround us, there are factors that can affect its functioning. Conditions such as inattentional blindness (increased by alcohol consumption!) not only causes simple careless mistakes, but harmful accidents as well. So remember everyone! Be careful, be alert, and be safe. Never drink and drive :)

Clifasefi, S. L., Takarangi, M. K. T., & Bergman, J. S. (2006). Blind Drunk: The Effects of Alcohol on Inattentional Blindness. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20: 697–704.

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