I don't mean inattentional blindness, where something is right in front of you but because of your attention being elsewhere you don't notice it at all and might deny it was even there if asked later.

I mean, when you idly, passively see something, and you do minimally notice it (if someone later asks "did you see X" you'll say yes), but it doesn't register, you don't process it properly or think about what you're seeing, you process it on autopilot.

Is there a word or simple, short, familiar phrase for that?

For example, earlier today over brunch, while my mind and the conversation were on other things, I saw a man walking a goat on a string down a main city road. I saw it, and I even idly, inattentively watched him tugging on the reluctant goat's string to pull it away from the fast-moving traffic, but it wasn't until my partner asked if I'd seen the man with the goat that I processed it at all and it registered that it was anything unusual.

I had seen it, I just hadn't observed it or really taken it in.

It's something often used for comic affect in film and TV, especially cartoons, especially as the setup for a double-take. I think a lot of disciplines like Asian martial arts and "mindfulness" regimes try to teach people against doing this. But I can't think what it's called.

  • That's a pretty good question. I'll think about it.
    – Ricky
    Nov 21, 2015 at 22:33
  • 'You see, but you do not observe' is what Sherlock usually trots out. Nov 21, 2015 at 22:38
  • "Looked right through" it.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 21, 2015 at 23:08
  • 1
    You "weren't paying attention to it". You "paid it no mind". You "took no notice", You were "heedless" of it. You were "oblivious" to it.
    – Jim
    Nov 21, 2015 at 23:17
  • 1
    a cursory glance?
    – ermanen
    Nov 22, 2015 at 15:38

4 Answers 4


I'd go for something like absentminded, as in—

I gazed absentmindedly at the man with the goat on a string, not actually registering the oddness of it.

Other options include "dispassionate" etc., but not as good in this situation.


The expression look without seeing is widely used.

Five hundred years ago, Da Vinci said:

People look without seeing, hear without listening, eat without awareness of taste, touch without feeling and talk without thinking."

  • 3
    Yeah, but he meant they were a bunch of brainless morons. That's not quite what the OP has in mind.
    – Ricky
    Nov 21, 2015 at 22:54

I'd use mindless observation. From the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

mind·less (of an activity) - so simple or repetitive as to be performed automatically without thought or skill.

  • This post would be improved by explaining why you suggest this term, for example, by providing a dictionary definition or examples in the wild. I encourage you take the site tour and review the help center for additional guidance. Nov 22, 2015 at 18:35

There's a technical term in psychology called the subconscious. You subconsciously watched him tugging on the reluctant goat's string. Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary...

existing in the mind but not immediately available to consciousness : affecting thought, feeling, and behavior without entering awareness.

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