What Is Attentional Blink and Why Does It Happen?

How shifting your focus leads to brief moments of attentional blindness

Attentional blink
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Your brain has limited attentional resources. This probably comes has no surprise to most people. If you have ever tried to focus on multiple things at once, you have likely discovered that you could not fully pay attention to each and everything in the world around you. In some cases, you might even notice that some things seem to simply slide past you unnoticed.

When you shift your focus from one thing to another, a tiny "gap" in attention is created lasting about half a second.

This gap is known as an attentional blink. During this gap, you are basically functionally blind.

When a sequence of visual stimuli is presented in a rapid sequence in the same spatial location, people often fail to detect a second target if it is presented within 180 to 450 milliseconds of the first one.

In one popular demonstration of the attentional blink, a series of letters and numbers are flashed on a screen in a rapid sequence. The viewer is asked to look for a specific pair of items, such as the number 2 and 7 and press a button when they spot the target numbers. In many cases, observers fail to see the second target when it occurs soon after the first one.

Why? Since attention is limited, focusing on the first target depletes these limited resources, essentially making the observer blind to the second target.

Why Does Attentional Blink Occur?

Some experts suggest that the attentional blink serves as a way to help the brain ignore distractions and focus on processing the first target.

When an event occurs, the brain needs time to process it before it can move on to the next event. If a second event occurs during this critical processing time, it will simply be missed.

A few different theories exist to explain the attentional blink.

  • Inhibition theory suggests that perceptual confusion occurs during the process of identifying targets, resulting in an attention gap.
  • Shapiro and others propose an interference theory in which competition for attention among the many items in a series results in focusing on the wrong target.
  • The attentional capacity theory proposes that the first target takes up too much of the available attention resources, making it more difficult to process the presentation of the second target.
  • Another popular theory is the two-stage processing theory. According to this idea, processing a series of items involves two different stages. The first stage involves noticing the targets, while the second involves actually processing the items so that they can be reported. Items must first be identified and processed, but if the first target is still being processed, the second target may not be noticed.

Attentional Blink in the Real-World

While many of the demonstrations of attentional blink involve rapid serial visual presentations in lab settings, this phenomenon can also influence how you experience events in the real world. For example, imagine that you are driving your car down a busy road when you notice that a car in front of you is starting to drift into the other lane.

As you focus on the scene down the road in front of you, your attention becomes briefly focused on the other car, which then limits your ability to attend to other traffic events happening in front of you for about half a second.

While that half-second period might seem very small, critical things can happen that can affect your safety. A deer might leap out into the road. The car in front of you might slam on its brakes. You might even start to drift slightly into the other lane. The attentional blink might be tiny, but it can certainly have serious consequences in real-world settings.

Interestingly, some research indicates that you might be able to train your brain to shorten the attentional blink. Researchers Green and Bavelier had participants play video games for one hour a day for a ten day period. They found that participants who had played an action-packed first-person shooter game were able to recover from the attentional blink faster at the end of the ten-day period than participants who had played a puzzle game. What explains the difference between the two groups? Since the attentional blink could have a serious effect on the score in the first-person shooter game (players needed to be able to quickly recognize and eliminate "bad guys" one after another), there was a great deal of incentive to shorten the attentional recovery time.


  • "We believe this attentional mechanism acts by reducing the likelihood that stimuli will be attended following the selection of a target; the effect lasts approximately half a second. Such a time period is actually quite long in 'attentional time.' Given the massive amount of information received by the visual system, even during short periods of time, perhaps the brain deals with a potential overload of information by not fully processing objects that it perceives to be the same in a given temporal episode."
    (Shapiro, 1994)
  • "The attentional blink is a profound and robust, but it is not universal. Several conditions have been found under which multiple targets can be processed within a short period of time... According to selection theories, the cause of the attentional blink lies not within the limited-capacity stage, but within the filtering or gating mechanism that performs the transition from the first to the second stage. The fact that performance on T2 is fine when there are no intervening distractors indicates a crucial role for those distractors. Selection theories, therefore, assume that distractors lead to active suppression (i.e., disruption or inhibition) of the perceptual input."
    (Olivers, 2013)

Learn more about:


Chun, D.M., & Potter, M.C. A two-stage model for multiple target detection in rapid serial visual presentation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 1995;21:109-127.

Duncan, J., Martens, S., & Ward, R. Restricted attention capacity within but not between sensory modalities. Nature. 1996;379: 808-810.

Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual attention. Nature. 2003;423: 534-537.

Olivers, C. N. L. Attentional blink effect. In H. Pashler (Ed.). Encyclopedia of the Mind, Volume 1. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc; 2013.

Raymond, J. E., Shapiro, K. L. , Arnell, K. M. Temporary suppression of visual processing in an RSVP task: An attentional blink? Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance. 1992;18(3): 849–60.

Shapiro, K. L. The attentional blink: The brain's "eyeblink." Current Directions in Psychological Science. 1994;3(3): 86-89.

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