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Why Surprises Temporarily Blind Us

Why Surprises Temporarily Blind Us

BrainReading this story requires you to willfully pay attention to the sentences and to tune out nearby conversations, the radio and other distractions.

But if a fire alarm sounded, your attention would be involuntarily snatched away from the story to the blaring sound.

New research from Vanderbilt University reveals for the first time how our brains coordinate these two types of attention and why we may be temporarily blinded by surprises.

"The simple example of having your reading interrupted by a fire alarm illustrates a fundamental aspect of attention: what ultimately reaches our awareness and guides our behavior depends on the interaction between goal-directed and stimulus-driven attention.

For coherent behavior to emerge, you need these two forms of attention to be coordinated," René Marois, associate professor of psychology and co-author of the new study, said. "We found a brain area, the inferior frontal junction, that may play a primary role in coordinating these two forms of attention."

The researchers were also interested in what happens to us when our attention is captured by an unexpected event.

"We wanted to understand what caused limitations in our conscious perception when we are surprised," Christopher Asplund, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and primary author of the new study, said. "We found that when shown a surprise stimulus, we are temporarily blinded to subsequent events."


"Regions that support searching for the X (red) and those reacting to the surprise stimulus (blue) shown on an inflated brain.The inferior frontal junction was involved in both processes (yellow). (Credit: Image courtesy of Vanderbilt University)"

Source: Vanderbilt University

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