The ability to switch off and absorb zero information from a conversation is second nature for children. Requests to take the washing in if it rains, turn the oven off in 10 minutes and come down for dinner are all too often unheard. According to Professor Nilli Lavie, however, these common acts by children are linked to the way the brain is developing.
Lavie, from University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, believes that adults have much better peripheral awareness than children because of the way their brain has developed. He said: “Parents and carers should know that even focusing on something simple will make children more likely to misunderstand the surroundings, compared to adults.”
“For example, an adult trying to zip up their coat while crossing the road will still be aware of oncoming traffic, compared to a younger brain. The capacity for awareness outside the focus of attention develops with age, so younger children are more likely to have inattentional blindness.”
Inattentional blindness is the difference between hearing and registering what is really said, and looking and seeing what is actually there. This results in lower awareness outside the immediate focus of attention, and most likely occurs when attention is engaged on another task, event, or object.
Professor Lavie’s conclusions came after a recent experiment that tested levels of inattentional blindness in children and adults. Over 200 visitors at the London Science Museum were asked to judge which line on a screen was the longest in seven different examples. Unknowingly, on one screen a black square flashed up and participants were asked if they noticed it.
90% of the adults were able to spot the black square, where as fewer than 10% of seven to 10-year-olds managed to spot the square. Lavie said: “It would be interesting to see at what point the brain fully develops. It was only in adults that the primary visual cortex was responding to the object on the screen and it appears to develop with age, until 14 and beyond.”
Previous research suggests that the primary visual cortex is the section of the brain responsible for perceiving things. In adults, with a fully developed cortex, common tasks in the modern world can feel much safer, and actions such as crossing the road whilst texting are performed more naturally.
There is also reason to believe that low levels of inattentional blindness are necessary when carrying out demanding tasks. Professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, Richard Wiseman, explains.
He said: “Big parts of the brain are dedicated to it. We want to process what is important. That’s why you need inattentional blindness, to help you focus.”
The brain gives us an illusion that it is constantly monitoring everything, so we are surprised when we miss something obvious. In reality, we are all prone to inattentional blindess, it is essential to everyday life to help maintain focus and pick out the important bits of information.
How do you ensure young children are concentrating on what you say?