Auditory attention causes visual inattentional blindness

Perception. 2008;37(6):859-66. doi: 10.1068/p5723.


When engaged in a visual task, we can fail to detect unexpected events that would otherwise be very noticeable. Here we ask whether a common auditory task, such as that of attending to a verbal stream, can also make us blind to the presence of visual objects that we do not anticipate. In two experiments, one hundred and twenty observers watched a dynamic display while performing either a visual or an auditory attention task, or both simultaneously. When observers were listening to verbal material, in order to either understand it or to remember it (auditory task), their probability of detecting an unexpected visual object was no higher than when they were counting bounces of moving items (visual task), although in the former case the observers' eyes and attention could move around the display freely rather than remaining focused on tracked items. Previous research has shown that attending to verbal material does not affect responses to lights flashing at irregular intervals, suggesting that driving performance is not hampered by listening. The lights, however, were expected. Our data imply that listening to the radio while driving, or to a portable audio player while walking or biking, can impair our reactions to objects or events that we do not expect.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Eye Movements / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Perceptual Disorders / psychology
  • Perceptual Distortion / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Visual Perception / physiology*