Attention lapses are a departure from our normally smooth everyday performance whereby events do not proceed according to our intentions. In these cases, though we have the ability to perform the task, we make simple mistakes. Attention lapses are a common occurrence for most people, and they are more commonly referred to as “absent-mindedness.” Attention lapses are usually harmless, though occasionally embarrassing, occurrences such as, “My office phone rang. I picked up the receiver and bellowed ‘Come in’ at it.”1 This example shows what happens when our attention fails: the individual was inattentive to his or her current experience and gave an automatic response that was incorrect, though typical for similar situations.
Not all attention lapses have such trivial consequences. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that at least 100,000 crashes and 1,500 deaths annually are the direct result of inattention because of drowsiness while driving. NHTSA estimates that a further one million crashes are caused by the driver’s inability to remain attentive while driving (for further information see: Drowsy Driving and Automobile Crashes).
Attention lapses are especially common when we are preoccupied or sleepy. Clinical studies show that sleep deprivation and fatigue make such attention lapses more likely to occur. Mark Smith et al., who maintain a website dedicated to sleep deprivation, claim attention is severely impaired by extended periods of wakefulness and that deficits of attention to many situations have been observed as a result of sleep loss. More recently, reports in the October 28, 2004 New England Journal of Medicine showed that reducing interns’ weekly work hours resulted in more sleep, greater alertness, and fewer serious medical errors (abstracts: first report, second report).
In order to prevent first-hand experience with some of the negative results of attention lapses, people who regularly experience daytime sleepiness may want to practice enhancing their ability to remain attentive when performing important tasks, such as driving. Beyond improving one’s sleep hygiene, mindfulness training might be an important step toward achieving this goal. Dr. Ernest Shaw wrote an interesting editorial at healthology.com where he succinctly describes mindfulness as the practice of purposefully paying attention to each moment. Furthermore, he goes on to say, “Mindfulness is a lifetime journey to be where we already are, but fully awake. So we don’t have to strain, or push ourselves, or try too hard. Rather, the spirit and heart of this practice is a gentleness or kindness toward ourselves and life. We pay attention not to judge what we see, but simply to just see. We open the mind and open the heart and pay attention.” Dr. Shaw also provides brief instructions on how to practice mindfulness in everyday life.
A leading figure in the field of mindfulness training is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who published a book titled Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. In this book he describes the meditative practices of mindfulness and its positive outcomes. While the idea that meditation is “spiritual” can be confusing, Kabat-Zinn prefers to think of mindfulness as a workout for your consciousness, or a way of exercising your sense of awareness. His book is available in many bookstores, and Amazon.com provides reviews of the book here.
We have also developed and collected some simple assessment tools and tests to measure the important aspects of inattention and attention lapses. These tools enable us to measure inattention more precisely, and to evaluate the impact of personal and situational factors on attention.
1 Reason, J. T. (1979). Actions not as planned: The price of automatization. In G. Underwood & R. Stevens (eds), Aspects of Consciousness. London: Academic Press. 67-89.