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Two weeks ago Western Washington University released a study on "inattentional blindness," which means you don't see something because you're paying attention to something else. Specifically, they wanted to know how much talking on a cell phone "blinds" you to other sensory input. Test subjects were in one of four states: talking on a cell, walking in pairs, listening to music on an MP3, or just walking along without benefit of electronic or human companionship.

The cell phone users were far more "blind" than the other subjects. Three-quarters of them failed to notice a clown on a unicycle who rode past them. The cell users walked more slowly and acknowledged fewer people they passed. Essentially, like Gertrude Stein's famous comment about Oakland, there was far less "there" there.

This state applies to other electronics users as well -- such as, for instance, the two pilots who missed Milwaukee because their laptops absorbed their attention more than did landing a plane. Also less "there" are all those people on the other end of your cell who are simultaneously playing computer solitaire or checking their FaceBook pages or playing WoW (you know who you are).

What struck me about the Western Washington study, however, was how much it applies to writers I know -- including me -- even when we're NOT talking using electronics. If we're thinking about a story in progress, we're often not there, either. We're in the story setting, or mentally rehearsing plot twists, or carrying on a separate conversation with the protagonist. Do writers have more inattentional blindness than other people? Now that's a study I'd like to see.

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laurierobey

January 2013

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