The Spotlight of Attention

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Sometimes the smartest thing we can do is understand the specific ways in which our brains and minds are dumb — by design.

The Eyes Have It

Perceptual Psychology is a branch of the Psychology family tree that gets relatively little press. Even a little study of how our senses convert the raw data of the five senses into a coherent world model shows us that our intuitive understanding of perception lies far, far away from what careful experiment teaches us.

High Definition (HD) television has risen from an expensive hobbyist technology to an affordable indulgence. Similarly, Apple’s “Retina Display” technology on it’s phones, tablets and computers presents our eyes with a tapestry of colored dots (or pixels) so fine that we’re unable to resolve individual dots (or pixels) anymore. But our eyes don’t work at all like these technologies.

An HD screen or an iPhone will have the same density of pixels in the center of the image as it does on the periphery. But our field of vision has different “zones” of resolution. The fovea is a tiny patch of the retina that contains an intensely dense array of specialized rod and cone cells that convert light into nerve impulses. This is the only part of the eye that has any hope of making use of HD imagery.

By contrast, the remaining area of the retina is low resolution at best. Yet we don’t intuitively feel that peripheral vision is poor, or even that we have peripheral vision that works differently from foveal vision. Subjectively it seems like we “see” around us in a wide arc of visual attention that is all equally good. What is going on here?

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There are many ways to approach the unconscious mind, but vision is one of the most accessible ways. When we see, we lack conscious awareness of the process of seeing and instead are given a seemingly instantaneous, boiled-down, cleaned-up replica of the pattern of light and shadow that enters our eyes. This incredible transformation lies outside of awareness.

The fovea tricks us into believing it is the only kind of vision we have by being always on the move, flicking from one likely target to another as we look around. While we know we are “looking at” something of interest, we don’t feel this scanning and each foveal “snapshot” rockets through our brain and is stitched together with previous views to form a mosaic that seems both high-resolution and “wide-screen.” Another way to imagine this is to think of a spotlight of intense visual attention playing across the scene as if it were a handheld flashlight. Outside of this bright spot, our eyes give us only blurry impressions, although we almost never catch on to this fact. This is but one of the tricks that our eyes and brains play on us every day which allow us to understand our world with little apparent effort.

Seeing with the Inner Eye

The tricks our eyes play on us are almost always benign, making us see better and faster, focusing on only the most important parts of our world yet giving the feeling of having seen it all. There is an analogous process going on purely inside our heads regarding our memories, thoughts and feelings.

Like our eyes, our minds have a spotlight of attention that we can direct to focus on some specific part of our inner landscape, leaving the rest out of focus, if not altogether invisible. Once again we are often not aware how our attention is flickering back and forth from a feeling to an idea to a memory.

What we call optical illusions in vision, we call mental biases or cognitive distortions of our insight. All too often, we make judgments about the present based on old information that we haven’t bothered to re-check in quite some time. Just as our eyes seem to show us the whole of our visual field instantaneously, we assume what we knew in the past still holds. This is why first impressions are so important and so tenacious (even when they’re later proven to be dead wrong).

Another common mental illusion comes about because we focus on what we like and care about and ignore everything else. Here in the U.S., political conservatives tend to watch specific news programs which agree with their viewpoints, while political liberals watch a different set of networks and hear ostensibly the same stories but with a different perspective. Then when the two groups meet, they cannot believe what they hear coming out of each other’s mouths. Sticking with our default perspective not only reinforces what we already believe but makes it progressively harder to see things any other way. Formally, we call this error in thinking “confirmation bias.”

A counterpoint to confirmation bias is negativity bias. The eye is known to gravitate to motion, especially objects that appear to be “leaping out” at the viewer. It only makes sense that our eyes would prioritize this information because a quick duck or dodge is usually in order. Similarly, our minds are on the lookout for things we imagine that can hurt us. A certain level of predictive vigilance is useful and maybe even necessary, but because we dwell on potential threats over what is good in life, many come to view life itself as dark and dangerous as a whole. We take what we think about regularly and make it our proxy for the whole world.

Our eyes and our minds both work in ways we don’t fully understand and while our eyes are nearly always good servants of our interests, our minds are far more likely to lead us astray through well-known mental illusions, biases, and cognitive distortions. Only by understanding and staying vigilant for these tricks do we draw closer to what is actually occurring before our eyes.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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