Why Does Attentional Blink Happen?

Attentional blink
Philippe Bigard / Getty Images

When you shift your focus from one thing to another, a tiny gap in attention called attentional blink is created. It only lasts for about half a second, so we barely notice it. 

Your brain has limited attentional resources. If you have ever tried to focus on multiple things at once, you have likely discovered you could not fully pay attention to all of them. In some cases, you might even notice that some things seem to simply slide past you unnoticed.

In one well-known demonstration of 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.

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

Why Does It 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.

There are a few different theories that seek to explain the attentional blink.

Inhibition theory suggests that perceptual confusion occurs during the process of identifying targets, resulting in an attention gap.

Interference theory posits that when different things competing for our attention, we may end up focusing on the wrong target.

The attentional capacity theory proposes that when presented with two targets, the first target may take up too much of the available attention resources, making it more difficult to process the sight 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. 

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 you're driving your car down a busy road when you notice a car in front of you has starting to drift into the other lane. Your attention becomes briefly focused on the other car, which limits your ability to attend to other traffic 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.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nieuwenstein MR, Potter MC, Theeuwes J. Unmasking the attentional blinkJ Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2009;35(1):159-169. doi:10.1037/0096-1523.35.1.159

  2. Warren CM, Breuer AT, Kantner J, Fiset D, Blais C, Masson ME. Target-distractor interference in the attentional blink implicates the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine systemPsychon Bull Rev. 2009;16(6):1106-1111. doi:10.3758/PBR.16.6.1106

  3. Chun MM, Potter MC. A two-stage model for multiple target detection in rapid serial visual presentationJ Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 1995;21(1):109-127. doi:10.1037//0096-1523.21.1.109

Additional Reading
  • Olivers CNL. Attentional blink effect. In: Pashler H, ed. Encyclopedia of the Mind. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc; 2013;1.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.