Momentary Blindness

By “Momentary Blindness” we are referring to a very short-term event that is not related to eye sight, but rather to mental recognition. The person does not lose their vision, even for a moment, they simply fail to notice something that has occurred right in front of them.

Researchers have fairly recently been studying a concept that has been known in some parts of the martial artists community for centuries. If you focus on something very intently you will miss something that occurs approximately one-half second later. Magicians practicing sleight-of-hand use this phenomenon with great regularity. They get their subjects to focus on one hand or action very intently then use the opposite hand to do something right in front of their subject that goes completely unnoticed. This might involve placing an object in a pocket, throwing something over the subject’s head, or some other form of misdirection. With proper focus and timing the misdirection is not noticed.

Researchers refer to this phenomena as “attentional blink.” They often test for and demonstrate it by having individuals review a sequence of rapidly change numbers and/or letters. They will tell the test subject to look for two specific letters or numbers that will appear in sequence. The second letter or number will occur perhaps one half second after the first. It is very common (though not a 100% certainty) that the test subject will notice the first, but not the second number or letter, even though they were looking for it. While the number or letter was present, it is completely missed in the majority of cases.

Experienced martial artists (and many others) have known about this for a very long time, though it is seldom appreciated or understood by the average person or martial arts practitioner.  It occurs when someone is very focused on one event. In such cases they will often completely miss noticing a second event that occurs shortly afterward.

As an example, if Uke and Tori are working together and Uke strikes at Tori with full force and with every intent of striking Tori in a given spot, then Uke may not even notice that Tori moved out of the way once the strike was initiated. If Tori moves about one half second after the strike has been initiated, it may completely escape Uke’s attention. The first thing Uke might notice is a controlling hand placed over his or her eyes.

This is not something you can count on to work every time or with every person. Like most such phenomena, there are many other factors that come into play, including lighting conditions, the attackers mindset, the exact moment when an escaping movement is initiated, how discreetly an escaping movement is performed, and how intensely the attacker is focused on their objective.

As your training becomes more intense you are likely to notice times when you attempted to hit someone only to be startled to notice they are no longer in their original location. This can be momentarily bewildering. It is as if they have disappeared before your eyes by invocation of some magical trickery. No, they just moved at the exact moment when you would not notice. Look for this phenomenon when you train – it will eventually happen to you, and when you least expect it. If you look for it or attempt to make it happen then it will not occur. It happens when you are thinking about something else intently.

There is some evidence (and often promoted by the meditation community) that meditation may help prevent or reduce the occurrences of attentional blink. Experiments were run in which a group of people were given the changing numbers/letters test. They recorded the typical results.

These people were then put through a series of meditation exercises for a fairly long period, after which they were tested again. In most cases these individuals noticed the second letter in these subsequent tests. This suggests you may be able to train yourself to lessen the degree to which you are subject to this phenomenon. But of course, these individuals were looking for a very specific event. It is not clear how well they would have done if the event had been more random or unexpected. I’m not aware of any tests in which meditation was used to help individuals better notice unexpected slight of hand tricks from a magician.

There are some other lessons to be learned here though. You should expect and not be startled that a focused movement on your part results in attentional blink. If you expect this as a possible outcome of a focused event then there is some chance you will be better able to deal with it and plan for such an eventuality.

But more importantly, if you avoid being extremely focused on a strike or other task then you will naturally reduce the likelihood of attentional blink happening to you. Avoid being focused on one single event. Think of movement as a continuous flow of activity and not as a series of short intense and focused events. Stay focused on the broader tasks rather than individual events. If you do that well then you should never have that sudden, “Hey, where did they go?” feeling.

Now take this to the next level of analysis. If you find that you have experienced attentional blink you should ask yourself why this occurred. It is not sufficient to simply recognize that it has happened and to then subsequently deal with it in some manner. You should realize that for a full half second or so you did not fully know what was going on. Half a second is a very long time in a conflict. You may wish you could have that half second back.

When attentional blink happens to you, and it happens to us all, you will want to spend some time (not necessarily at the moment) thinking about what happened and how your efforts and motivations led to your momentary lapse of visual recognition. You will want to question what you were trying to accomplish and why it was of such importance to you that you were willing to forgo some portion of your sensory inputs in order to achieve it. Then you need to consider whether any momentary goal is that important.

So treat moments of attentional blink as a learning tool. When they occur use them as feedback mechanism to teach yourself not to become so focused that you eventually find yourself in a dazed or uncomfortable situation. Realize that every instance of attentional blindness is a point of failure in your combat skills. Spend the necessary time to analyze how this happened and what you might do differently next time.

Attentional blindness is not something you should treat with frustration. It is no different than missing an important block. These are opportunities to make improvements in your skills and actions. Just realize when attentional blindness has occurred and take some time to see what corrective actions you can make to reduce the chances of it happening to you again.

See Also

Tunnel Vision

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