Wot gorilla?

The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. This book by the psychologists who ran the famous Gorillas in our midst experiment tell us that they found that half the people asked to count passes among one team missed seeing a person in a gorilla suit stride into the centre of the court, beat their chest, and walk off again. Their theory, backed up with lots of other anecdotes about football players in motorcycle accidents and submarine captains smashing fishing boats in two, is that although we might stare at something, we don’t necessarily perceive it.

Well, there are two problems I can see with the gorilla video experiment (that don’t perhaps explain the other anecdotes, but they’re just anecdotes, not controlled experiments). First, is that it’s a video and we do behave very differently when hunched over a computer screen or watching a TV to how we would respond in real-life if you were actually at a basketball game and someone wandered on to the court dressed as a gorilla. Screen refresh rates aside, there are just so many conditioned factors associated with on-screen activities as opposed to the real world.

But, secondly and most importantly. The missing gorilla might be explained by a trick of memory rather than perception. The experiment’s subjects were asked to concentrate on counting passes, now in a fast-paced game like basketball that would be quite taxing if one assumed one had to count accurately. So, couldn’t it be that the subjects’ short-term memory simply doesn’t record its presence because the brain is so focused on the task in hand. After all, there’s no need to retain that information whereas the pass count is all important? It’s not that the subjects don’t see it, it’s just that they don’t remember seeing it.

There are several other scenarios in the book, which could have other obvious explanations rather than being due to a perception deficiency. The virtuoso violinist on a Washington DC street corner being ignored, for instance. That story assumes that the average DCite responds to classical violin music and isn’t tuned out with their personal music player and myriad other musical styles. Anyway, that’s just one book, it’s worth a read, but I suspect you will find yourself arguing with their conclusions as I did. Nevertheless, you can buy it on Amazon.

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