Life Lesson: The Monkey Business Illusion (AKA The Invisible Gorilla)

Humans are great a focussing all their attention on the smallest of details, but there’s a problem with this: it means that we often miss very obvious things that are going on around us because we are just not paying attention to the right cues from our environment. Most of the time, this is just annoying, but sometimes it can be down-right dangerous, such as when we fail to spot a car speeding towards us because we’re too busy tapping away on our mobile phones. The sooner that kids learn about this bias in human perception, the better because it means that they’ll be less likely to fall for it themselves (or actually they’ll be more likely to double-check so that they catch things they missed the first time round!). However, how do you teach kids about this?

Well, one of the best examples is from the scientific experiment by David Simons and Christopher Chabris which demonstrated just how bad humans are at spotting unexpected events in their environment when they are focussing other things. It’s called The Monkey Business Illusion (also known as The Invisible Gorilla for reasons that will become clear later), but it’s better not to tell you child this before you show them the following video. It’s best to show it to them on as large a screen as possible and is most appropriate for children from about the age of seven or eight onwards. So here’s the video, and it explains just about everything you need to know:

What’s Going On Here?

So, why do most people miss something as obvious as a person in a gorilla suit walking across the screen? Well, it’s down to what is known as inattention blindness. Inattention blindness occurs because our brains tend to filter out large amounts of information from our environment before it ever reaches our conscious mind. It does this because it’s the only way to stop it becoming swamped by useless signals that we can safely ignore. However, this filtering system isn’t perfect and surprisingly often it will filter out information that should have got through. This is what’s happening when you watch the above video. At the beginning you are given instructions to count the number of passes between the people in white. Your brain takes this as an indication that it can safely ignore anyone wearing black, and so it filters much of the information about them out. This includes exactly what they look like. Instead, they are replaced by a generic ‘person-in-black’ figure. Once your brain has been primed this way, when the gorilla appears, because it is black, it too is filtered out and replaced by the same generic figure. As a result, you don’t perceive that it is a gorilla. Or at least you don’t until someone points it out. When this happens, your brain stops filtering out the people dressed in black (because they are now deemed as being important), and you see them for what they really are, including the one dressed in the gorilla suit. Interestingly, you are a lot more like to spot the gorilla the first time round if you are told to count the number of passes between the people wearing black rather than white.

The fact that our brains filter the environment in this way can cause us major problems. For example, it can lead to people inadvertently identifying the wrong person as the offender if they see a crime, or miss the cyclist that is coming along the road towards them when they are turning into a side street, or ignore a warning signal that something bad is about to happen. As a result, it is important that we understand what is going on in our brains when this happens, and that we take steps to avoid it happening in critical situations. This involves training ourselves to become more aware of what is going on around us, especially things that are not the main focus of our attention at any specific moment in time.

Useful Links To More Information

If you want to find out more about the invisible gorilla and why we are pre-programmed by the instructions at the start of this video to miss it, even though it’s so obvious once we have been told that it’s there, you do so on the following links:

  1. This is the website set up by David Simons and Christopher Chabris, the scientists who originally came up with this experiment. It contains, amongst other things, links to their books and to other similar videos. To visit it, click here.
  2. Inattention Blindness: This is the Wikipedia article about inattention blindness, the name that scientists give to the fact that we miss a lot of things that are going on around us, just because we are not paying enough attention to our environment. Toi read this article, click here.
  3. Human Perception and the Invisible Gorilla: This is an article from Time magazine about this famous inattention blindness experiment. To read it, click here.
  4. Failures of Awareness: The Case of Inattentional Blindness: This is a great article about the history of our understanding of inattention blindness, and it also features some great examples as well as more detailed explanations of exactly what’s going on. To read it, click here.

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About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.


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