You might not know it, but you suffer from a severe blindness. Every day you miss things that happen right in front of your face. Real things. Literally in front of you. I’m not talking metaphorically. It sounds preposterous at first, which is why the body of research demonstrating this blindness is so fascinating.
I may have already ruined it for you, but if you want to experience this right now, check out this video by Dan Simons and follow along with the instructions. You’ll be asked to count the number of times the people in white shirts pass the basketball. This might seem easy, but you’d be surprised at how many people fail at this task. Give it your best try.
Don’t scroll down until you’ve watched the video
Did you notice the gorilla? A majority of people completely miss it. Makes you wonder how many gorillas you passed on your way to work.
There are a number of other demonstrations — some where one person is swapped with another, and the poor test subject has no idea that the guy he was talking to has just changed into a different person.
I got in on the game myself. While at the University of Illinois, I set up an experiment that had physics students attempt to solve a problem on a computer screen. While they were working on it I changed the diagram on the screen (at a moment when they looked away from the screen and at me). Most kept on going like nothing happened.
So what’s going on here? Simply put, our minds fools us into thinking we’re getting a full and rich experience when actually we can only really pay attention to a portion of what we think we see. In the case of the gorilla video, if you weren’t told to count the number of times the people in white pass the basketball, you would almost certainly have noticed the gorilla. Because you were focused on the people in the white shirts and what they were doing, you were neglecting other things, like the gorilla.
Now, this “inattentional blindness” as it’s called has to do with how we direct our visual attention, but all aspects of our attention are similarly limited, for example, our short-term memory can only hold maybe three or four items at a time. These are biological limitations. It’s just how we’re built. No matter how highly you think of yourself, you’ve got these limitations.
“Ok, I don’t pass many gorillas on the street, so how does this affect me?”
I’m so glad you asked. Here are five takeaways to consider given the reality of our blindness:
1. Always remember that it’s possible you missed something obvious
I’m not suggesting you should be paralyzed with self-doubt, but knowing you can miss a gorilla in front of your eyes can help keep you from getting over-confident. Imagine if you watched the gorilla video, failed to see the gorilla, and then talked to somebody who insisted there was a gorilla in the video. Your response might be, “Are you crazy? I would have seen a gorilla.” No. No, you wouldn’t have.
2. Don’t be shocked when others miss something obvious.
The corollary of point #1. If it can happen to you, it can happen to anyone.
3. Be mindful of your attention
If you didn’t see the gorilla, it was because you were paying attention to the people in white and counting how many times they passed the ball. That task requires a lot of your attention, which contributes to your inability to notice the gorilla.
It’s good to have focused attention — you couldn’t get much work done otherwise — but realize that putting one thing in focus puts everything else out of focus. Always consider how your attitude and focus will influence what you notice.
4. Take time to reflect
As we go about our daily tasks, we are seldom mindful of what we are neglecting. Take time every so often to reflect specifically on where you’re allocating your attention.
What have you been ignoring? Don’t compartmentalize when you reflect. Don’t just reflect on your work. Reflect on your life. Are you being the kind of person you want to be? How is your family? Your health?
If you never take a step back to evaluate things, you’re just letting your circumstances shape you.
5. Know your limits
Our minds are fascinating. In some ways, our minds do more than we realize. There’s a lot going on in our subconscious that, by definition, we have no awareness of. But in other respects our minds can trick us into thinking we’re capable of more than we really are.
Studies have shown we actually can’t multi-task as well as we think. So most of us should probably slow down and focus on just one thing at a time.
Most of us need more sleep and less caffeine.
No matter how amazing you are as a person, your mind relies on your brain, which is a physical object that, while amazing, has definite limitations.
And finally, as a bonus takeaway, never trust a psychologist doing research.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m on twitter @adamfeil