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Did you see that pink elephant!? No? Good! December 31, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life.


Picture this (this was really done). Hire a clown. Put him on a unicycle. Have him play around some busy college campus square. Next, stand off to the edge of the square and intercept people who are walking away from the square. Ask them: “did you see that clown!?”

You can find a subset of the people who will, 3 out of 4, answer no. It is those who are talking on cell phones, or texting, or whatever-electronic-gadget-thing, as they were walking.

This phenomena is called inattentional blindness. The above study was done by some researchers at Western Washington University.* The context for this study, of course, is talking on the cell phone while driving. We all know how bad it is. I’m currently here in Ottawa, in the Ontario province of Canada, where, I’m told, playing with any electronic gadget while driving is illegal (iPods, phones, etc.).

But thinking about this… There is a flip side to this study. This is exactly the state I want to achieve when I’m working. When I sit down to prepare a lecture on field theory, or try to come up with a better way to calibrate an ATLAS b-tagging algorithm, or figure out how to help my student out on his ZH analysis, I want exactly this inattentional blindness.

Email? Ignored! Facebook? Ignored! People wandering by my office? Ignored! That book at the side of my bed? Ignored! That TV show I’ve recorded? Ignored! That gadget blog begging me to read it? Ignored!

Sadly, following this study, I’d have to be on the cell phone constantly in order to make that happen. Perhaps if I write my lectures by twitter? Or I could send my physics ideas out by facebook updates?

I’ve not gotten to nirvana yet. Some things are easy to do – shutting off email, for example. But, when it comes write down to it, there are times when my mind would rather spend in places other than where I’d like it. Too bad…

P.S. During the writing of this blog post I checked my email once, sent two emails out, and read the engadget website.

* Sorry about the link to the blog posting at the NYTimes. I can’t link directly to the article because, I think, there isn’t public access provided. For those that have it, the blog posting contains a direct link if you want to read it.



1. Rick Baartman - January 7, 2010

Plural: phenomena
Singular: phenomenon

–the Latin police

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