You might not know the term, but you have experienced the problem. The term? Inattentional blindness. The idea? That we often overlook something right in front of us because we are focused on something else.
We often miss an object right in front of our eyes if it occurs unexpectedly and our attention is otherwise engaged. This phenomenon has been labeled inattentional blindness, and it occurs in diverse and potentially critical situations. (Kreitz, C., Schnuerch, R., Gibbons, H., & Memmert, D. . “Some See It, Some Don’t.”)
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of . . .
Changing the station on your car radio only to accidentally run a red light or miss a turn.
While multitasking at your desk switching between your phone and laptop you knock over your cup of coffee.
Having a conversation with a friend while trying to keep up with your text messages only to lose track of the conversation.
Surprisingly, this happens frequently while reading Scripture. When we approach a passage of Scripture with an expectation to find a certain something or when we open the Bible to a passage that we feel is familiar, we can easily overlook what is right there in the text because we are distracted by what are anticipating we will find.
Repeatedly, Jesus asked those He encountered a question about their handling of Scripture. He would ask, “Have you never read?” (e.g., see Matthew 21:42; Mark 2:25). He wasn’t suggesting that they weren’t familiar with the text in question; He was raising the question of whether they had paid attention to what the text in question actually said. Did they see had always been there in the text?
One of the most common things we hear in River classes is, “I never saw that before!” That comment arises when, in walking through a passage and being attentive to the very words of the text, someone sees something that has always been there, in the text, but that they never noticed before. Most of the time that happens because in previous readings of the text they weren’t attentive to what the author of the text wrote–they had only been looking for something they had pre-determined to find in that text.
What can help you, as a reader, to avoid this common problem? Here are a few suggestions:
Decide to read slowly. With the desire to “get through” a passage, you can easily end up skimming or scanning a passage. That can leave you inattentive to what is there before you in the text.
Ignore the headings in your Bible. Although the headings most Bibles have inserted into the text can be of some help, they can also be misleading. The headings are an attempt to tell you something about what you are about to read. But that sets you up to look for what the heading points at rather than reading, for yourself, to discover what is there.
Pay attention to the “little words.” Often, in a desire to get the “big picture” of a passage, we can overlook the little words that stitch thoughts together. Don’t pass over words like “but” or “for” or “and” or “or.” Those words will often be of great help in tracking well with how the Biblical author is putting his thoughts together.