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A few days ago I gave my daughter a ride back from school. It was a sunny fall day, and the sky was clear blue. We both enjoyed the cool air and remained quiet, looking out the window, taking it all in, and postponing the typical “how was your day” conversation. When we arrived at our street, she looked up to the top of the trees that are lined up on both sides of the road, broke the silence, and said: “These trees are really beautiful. Were they always here?” And indeed, the trees were beautiful that afternoon, dressed in colors of fall, their tops touching each other, forming a tunnel that enveloped the road. Of course, they were always there, on the daily route back from school. Yet in the two years since we had moved, my daughter and I never really noticed them.

Many of us mistakenly think that we see what our eyes look at, but research shows that we only see things if we direct our attention to them. This phenomenon is called Inattentional Blindness, and was first recognized by Aristotle, though only recently studied [1]. The senses capture the image of the outside world, looking, but it is only when the mind decides to notice and observe that we actually see. Many of us have seen the “Gorilla Experiment”, where a group of people pass a basketball around and a subject is asked to count the number of passes. In this experiment, first conducted by Ulric Neisser in the 1970s, most subjects were so immersed in the counting task, that they never notice a woman dressed in a full-body gorilla suit walking around and waving her arms up and down. The Gorilla experiment was revised by Simons and Chabris in the 1990s [2], and you can watch it on YouTube. Inattentional blindness is a serious phenomenon that can have life-and-death implications when one is engaged in critical tasks like driving [3].

This phenomenon of “looking without seeing” may initially seem to be bad news, as it seems to mean that we lack control over perception, but the opposite is actually true. The fact that your attention is decoupled from your senses means that you have full control over what you choose to see, once you learn how to focus. You always notice the gorilla once you know about it, and once you notice the trees, it is easier to notice them again. A few days ago, beautiful trees appeared in my street, and if I look for additional “new” things of beauty in my neighborhood, I’m sure that I’ll find them. If right now you stopped reading and looked around, what new details would surface to your attention? What are the things in your relationships or in your career that you are blind to? What may be right there in front of you that you miss? If you take control over your attention, you can change the reality you experience. There may be a hairy gorilla waving its arms at you every day. All you have to do is to stop looking and to start seeing. Open your eyes.

 

[1] Mack, A. (2003). Inattentional Blindness Looking Without Seeing. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(5), 180-184.

[2] Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception-London, 28(9), 1059-1074.

[3] Wood, C., Gray, R., Young, J., Summers, J., Torkkola, K., & Massey, N. (2003). Inattentional blindness while driving. Driving Assessment.