Y’Think? What Gorilla?
Your unconscious mind has a mind of its own, and it doesn’t always see what’s there to be seen.
Have you ever been so absorbed with a task that, when someone said something to you, you didn’t even hear it? Or maybe you heard the sound but had to have it repeated. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said. Please say it again.”
Have you ever played a sport so intently that you injured yourself yet you didn’t feel pain until later? Soldiers in battle sometimes get wounded yet feel no pain and sometimes don’t even know they’re wounded until later, when they discover, usually with considerable surprise, that they’ve been hurt. Athletes often get minor injuries without being aware of them until later, when the intensity of the competition abates and the intensity of the injury becomes noticeable.
When you focus your attention on something, you become less aware of other things, sometimes even blind to them. The more intently you focus, the more blind you become to everything else. And when you’re blind in this way your internal reality may not match up with the real thing — you may not see what’s there to be seen.
There’s a famous experiment that shows this kind of focus blindness. You can see it on YouTube; look for “The Monkey Business Illusion.” Follow the instructions carefully and you’ll be surprised at your own powers of observation, or lack of them. Do yourself a favor, and don’t read the next paragraph until after you’ve watched it. It’s worth the experience and it’s fun. Take a break from reading, and go check out the Monkey Business Illusion.
Those of you who watched The Monkey Business video experienced focus blindness in dramatic, if humorous fashion. For those of you who didn’t bother to watch, the video shows six people, three in black shirts and three in white shirts, moving around in a room, passing basketballs back and forth between themselves. Your task, as observer, is to count the number of times people in white shirts pass the ball to someone else and ignore the times that people in black shirts pass.
It’s a confusing scene and it requires concentration to get an accurate count. But the point of the exercise isn’t to count basketball passes; it’s to demonstrate focus blindness. What happens is that, after about twenty seconds of watching, counting and focusing your attention on the exercise, a person in a gorilla suit walks slowly among the basketball passers, pauses in the middle of the room to beat its chest and then strolls slowly out of the room.
Fifty percent of the people who watch the video don’t even notice the gorilla and swear up and down that there was no gorilla. They have to watch the video again to convince themselves that there actually was a gorilla and that they missed it completely.
Even people like me who think we’re savvy, and who know about the Monkey Business Illusion, fall prey to focus blindness. I knew about the person in the gorilla suit, but during the video the color of the background curtain changed and one of the six people left the room, but I didn’t notice anything but the basketballs and the gorilla. So even though I was prepared to have my powers of observation tested, I was still blind to two significant happenings. It’s mind blowing if you don’t know about focus blindness.
What happens is this: When confronted with a task that requires focused attention, your unconscious mind channels itself to accomplish the task. Your eyes, ears, etc. continue to receive sensory data but your mind is ignoring everything not related to your task. Your eyes see the gorilla and pass on that visual data, but your mind doesn’t pay attention to it because it has nothing to do with counting basketball passes. The resources of your mind are dedicated to accomplishing the task, and it ignores what it considers irrelevant.
Expectations make a big difference. If you were told beforehand that a gorilla would appear, you’d have noticed the gorilla, even though you were concentrating on basketball passing. Training and awareness can open your powers of observation so that you’re less susceptible to focus blindness, but even the best training can’t overcome the mind’s need to narrow its attention to the task at hand, especially when the task is important and difficult.
Stress is a bit different. When you’re in real or imagined danger, when you might fail at something important or when there’s the possibility of suffering a blow to your self-image — whatever puts you in stress — your powers of observation may be diminished.
When stressed, your mind becomes vigilant and poised to deal with the threat but doesn’t pay much attention to anything else. It’s like focus blindness in that your mind is looking for something to deal with, to protect you against or to understand so that you can respond in a way that preserves your safety or peace of mind. In other words, your mind is focused in specific ways that cause it to see what it expects to see, or to interpret what it does see in ways that are consistent with whatever is causing the stress.
In either case, focus or stress, your mind ignores some perceptions, or reshapes them. The result is that you end up with a flawed sense of reality. And that means decisions and actions you take when focused or stressed may not be as reality-based as you think they are.
So, what can you do about it? How can you focus without focus blindness and make good decisions when stressed? How can you be sure you’ll see the gorilla?
There’s no sure cure because your mind is designed to narrow your attention when focused or stressed. Simple awareness seems to be the only thing that helps, but even awareness is impaired when you’re focused or stressed.
Still, now that you know about focus blindness, you can remind yourself about it when you’re engaging in a difficult task or dealing with stress. It may not be the perfect solution, but it’ll go a long way toward keeping you alert to what’s happening around you. — Alex Alexander
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