Imagine someone holding up an item, something very large and very tangible, right in front of your eyes. Can you imagine any way they could do it so you wouldn’t even notice it?
This is the sort of challenge put to me and other viewers of a TV news magazine segment some years ago. Hey, I thought, I’m a really good observer. In fact, I've been in the business of noticing and controlling visual details. Let's see ‘em try to fool me!
The demonstration began with a short piece of video. Viewers were asked to closely observe a group of six people in a small room passing around two basketballs. Three of the people wore black shirts; the other three, white shirts. The charge to viewers was to count the number of times any white-shirted person passed a ball to anyone else.
Hey, I thought, I’m a really good observer...
Let's see ‘em try to fool me!
IN AND OUT OF THE TUNNEL
The people started moving around, turning and intermingling, all the while passing, catching and dribbling the balls. After about 30 seconds, they and the video clip stopped. No problem, I thought. I was sure I hadn't fallen for a single one of those black-shirts’ passes. Yes sir, I saw right through that and all their other tricks to distract me! Fifteen passes*—no doubt about it.
The host promised to give the correct answer, but first he begged our indulgence. He’d show the same film clip again, only this time he instructed viewers not to focus on anything in particular. "Just take in the whole scene," he instructed. Okay, I’m thinking, maybe I did miss a pass or two.
Again the video rolls. The people start passing balls and milling around. It’s obviously the exact same clip. Halfway through the scene, though, a person in a gorilla suit emerges stage left, walks deliberately into the middle of the group, stops, faces the camera, outrageously beats his chest with both arms and then walks out of the scene stage right.
The film is part of an exercise developed by Daniel Simons, a Harvard psychologist who's studying blind spots—our failure to notice presumably obvious things when our thoughts (though not necessarily our vision) are focused elsewhere. He calls it inattentional blindness. He suggests that such a phenomenon might explain a number of otherwise baffling accidents, including one several years before in which a U.S. submarine collided with a Japanese fishing trawler, even though the latter was in plain sight of the sub.
Simons's research showed that more than half of subjects do not notice the gorilla in their first viewing of the film. I’d have bet the farm that I’d be in the other half. I would have lost.
In this visual black hole, I always sail right past our exit, and God knows what else.
Come to think of it, I know from my own experience that this kind of blind spot can happen, not just when visual stimuli compete, but also when the other senses are involved. Just ask my wife. Now I know I’m about the farthest thing there could possibly be from a multi-tasker. So, with much “coaching” over the years, I’ve learned that when she and I are talking I need to really pay attention to what she’s saying.
Occasionally, this has proven a problem when we’re headed somewhere in the car and I’m also trying to navigate. Apparently, the way my mind deals with serious listening is to turn off all my other senses. In this visual black hole, I always sail right past our exit, and God knows what else. When I think about it, that’s pretty scary. I’m just glad I haven’t missed any “Bridge Out!” signs!
Do these events show how powerful our senses can be when narrowly focused, or how fickle they are when they’re not?
Do these events show how powerful our senses can be when narrowly focused, or how fickle they are when they’re not? If it’s power, it can surely be harnessed for a great deal of good. (Think medical research, the arts or even hypnosis.) Or it can be used for evil. (Think bait-and-switch scams or governments fostering fear to divert attention from their abuses.)
Either way, the lesson is, while appreciating our senses and our minds for all they can do, we can ill afford not be aware of their limitations.
* The correct answer for the number of basketball passes was 15.
For more about inattentional blindness here's a link to Simons's book on the topic, The Invisible Gorilla.