Saturday, March 12, 2016

The feeding conundrum

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. - Sherlock Holmes

Watch this brief video before you proceed further. (It is critical that you watch the video before you read the post.) In one of my early posts, I had written:
At times I am so lost in my thoughts that I fail to notice the nurse giving me feeds through the feeding tube. When Jaya asks me about the feeding I stare blankly at her and she has to get the details from the nurse. Even I am surprised that I did not notice something so obvious. 
I came across a study which throws light on why I missed something so obvious. Since the experiment was first published in 1999, it has become one of the  most widely demonstrated and discussed studies in all of psychology. It won the psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons  the Ig Nobel Prize in 2004. It illustrates a situation where people are misled into thinking that they know something that they actually don't.

The psychologists made a short film of two teams of people moving around passing basketballs. One team wore white shirts and the other wore black.Many people were shown the clip and asked to count the number of passes made by the players wearing white while ignoring the passes made by the players wearing black. The subjects counted the number of passes fairly accurately but that was not the point of the experiment.

Half-way through the video, a female student wearing a gorilla suit walks into the scene, stops among the players, faces the camera, thumps her chest and walks off.The amazing fact is that roughly half the number of people in the study did not notice the gorilla! They were so busy doing the task assigned to them that they did not notice any other happening. The experiment has been repeated many times, under different conditions in many countries but the results are always the same: about half the people fail to notice the gorilla.

This error of perception due to lack of attention to an unexpected object is called 'inattentional blindness'. It is called 'inattentional' because the blindness results not from any damage to the visual system but  because people are devoting their attention to one aspect and miss other aspects that they are not expecting. They are taken aback when their error is pointed out.

When the experiment was repeated without the task of having to count the passes, everyone spotted the gorilla easily - their brain was not busy doing another activity. The gorilla study illustrates the powerful illusion of attention.  Looking directly at something is no guarantee that you will see it. You may miss it if your brain is busy doing something else. That is why driving while talking on the cell-phone is so dangerous. The psychologists write in The Invisible Gorilla (a description of the experiments mentioned in the book can be found at their website
As the gorilla experiment has become more widely known, it has been used to explain failures of awareness,from the concrete to the abstract, in diverse domains. It's not just limited to visual attention, but applies equally well to all of our senses and even to broader patterns in the world around us. The gorilla is powerful because it forces people to confront the illusion of attention.It provides an effective metaphor precisely because the illusion of attention has such broad reach.
It is plausible to now think that missing noticing the feeding being given to me  was not unusual. My brain was busy thinking of something and was not paying attention to the surroundings.Most of the seeing is not done by the eyes but by the brain.

PS: I had to think of a title that was related to the post yet did not give any clue about the contents of the post otherwise you may spot the gorilla. Once you know about the existence of the of the gorilla, you cannot avoid seeing it. And yes, I did not spot the gorilla. Neither did Jaya.

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