Field of Science

Blink and you'll miss it (depending, of course, on your religious beliefs)

The attentional blink is another of those weird and wonderful cognitive blind spots with which the human race is afflicted. Flash up two images in close succession, and we find it really difficult to even notice the second, let alone figure out what it is. That's basically because our brains are still engaged in processing the first one.

In another recent study by Lorenzo Colzato (she also did the "big picture" study from a couple of blog posts ago), atheists and Dutch Christian Calvinists have had their attentional blinks assessed.

The set-up is pretty simple. A series of single-digit numbers flash up on the screen, then a letter, then a few more numbers, then another letter. The task is to identify the two letters.

Now, getting the second letter right is easy if you weren't paying attention to the first one. So the key is to look for those people who got the first one right. If you get the first one right, and the second wrong, you have a long attentional blink. If you get the first right and the second right too, then you have a short attentional blink.

Lorenzo found that the atheists she tested had a shorter attentional blink than the Calvinists. In fact, as the figure shows, there actually seems to be a fairly direct relationship between how often the people in her study prayed, and the length of their attentional blink.

She thinks that this is related to her earlier finding (that Calvinists are 'detail' people rather than 'big picture' people). Calvinists are trained from birth to focus on a narrower, rather than a bigger context, and Lorenzo thinks that this has widespread effects on their style of information processing - when compared to individuals who are raised with a broader, more complex worldview (including religious people).

Now, I have no idea whether a long attentional blink is a good or bad thing. I guess it depends a lot on the circumstances. It is, however, interesting to note that an earlier study, which showed that meditation can shorten your attentional blink, came down firmly on the side of believing this to be a good thing.
Colzato, L. (2010). Religion and the Attentional Blink: Depth of faith predicts depth of the blink Frontiers in Psychology DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00147

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. If I could design my society with ambitions with competing with another, perhaps there would be an optimal short/long blinker ratio. Perhaps Long Blinkers can do certain things better than Short Blinkers.

    Well, that is population evolution which is questionable. But I can see Short Blinkers grabbing different niches than Long Blinkers and escaping competitions.

    We need a study of Arminians to see how they compare to the Calvinists.

  2. The controverial Whorfian hypothesis states that part of the cultural upbringing that shapes our language is language itself. I have always leaned against Whorfians, but there is something there.

    I just read a well-written NYT article on the issue (by a neo-Whorfian, I think). Here is a fun fact that seems similar to the suspicions about the Calvinists:

    In coming years, researchers may also be able to shed light on the impact of language on more subtle areas of perception. For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie.

  3. * oooops, please edit:

    ".. that shapes our language is language itself."
    ".. that shapes our cognition is language itself."


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