In a famous study of visual perception, most students asked to count the number of times a basketball was passed between a group of six people failed to notice a gorilla wandering through the film. You can see the illusion below.
The 'invisible' gorilla illusion is a wonderful example of selective attention because - once you see it - the gorilla is obvious. How could anyone miss it?
Easily. They were paying attention to something else. One of the reasons that psychology is so fascinating to so many people is that it shows us clearly doing things that are absolutely counterintuitive and contrary to common sense - over and over again.
I was reminded of this study the other day. My family was just returning from camping and had turned the corner to our street, a few blocks from the college. It's a typical old fashioned neighborhood, with tightly packed houses, sidewalks, small lawns, and overhanging trees.
See the deer? Six other people didn't.
And there, in the middle of the street, was a deer. She walked slowly over to the neighbor's yard while I pulled out my phone and snapped the picture (left).
See the deer? Six other people didn't. What I found somewhat surreal about this whole incident, was what happened next.
My husband pulled over and parked the car.
I got out, pulled out my phone, and stood on the sidewalk taking pictures. Three students walked by, ignoring me and clearly not noticing the deer.
A cyclist rode by. My son waved and pointed at the deer. The rider turned his head, but again, did not see it.
A jogger was coming down the road, ponytail bouncing.
The deer spooked, and started running down the road.
Next to the jogger - perhaps 10' away.
They ran together for at least fifty feet, with the deer slightly ahead of the jogger, before the deer took off into a yard.
The jogger never noticed.
And she wasn't even wearing headphones.
The Gorilla In Times Square
When I was a kid, our minister gave a children's sermon loosely basedon the book A Cricket In Times Square. He described how a cricket had inadvertantly hitched a ride via picnic basket from his home in the country and found himself onto a New York City subway. He sang - as crickets do - loudly and insistently.
But no one heard him.
It wasn't that it was noisy. It was that no one EXPECTED a cricket there, so the sounds didn't register. If a cricket sings in Times Square and no one hears him, does he make a sound?
Just as when Joshua Bell, one of the world's great violinists, played in a Washington DC subway station for 45 minutes without anyone noticing, No one expected beauty, so no one heard it.
As my German grandmother would say, "Think on that."
Summer is ending and the crisper air of autumn is sharpening our senses.
City, suburb, or country, there are things around us that are worth attending to. Nature is everywhere - in small bits and vast expanse. It enriches us. Learning to notice it adds variety, interest, and joy to our lives.
Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.