Gorillas, starship commanders, and your brain

Steven here…

A lot of skepticism involves learning about and recognizing psychological phenomena. Alien abduction accounts are easier to understand if you’ve read about hypnogogia. When some Christians begin speaking in tongues, it helps to know how glossolalia works. And of course, it’s always useful to familiarize yourself with pareidolia when someone claims they have a cinnamon bun in the form of that overrated nun, Mother Theresa.

Among the most interesting of these is inattentional blindness, which involves an observer missing data because they are focused on something else. It is a wonderful way to illustrate how our brains judge the importance of what sensory information we’re taking in. The most famous example of this is the Invisible Gorilla. In the embedded video, you can watch as a crowd of people completely misses an extremely conspicuous man in a gorilla costume.

That one is amusing, but some of them are unsettling. Such as radiologists missing that same gorilla in tissue imaging. In this experiment, a picture of a gorilla was added to slides screening for lung cancer.

Drew wondered if somehow being so well-trained in searching would make them immune to missing large, hairy gorillas. “You might expect that because they’re experts, they would notice if something unusual was there,” he says.
He took a picture of a man in a gorilla suit shaking his fist, and he superimposed that image on a series of slides that radiologists typically look at when they’re searching for cancer. He then asked a bunch of radiologists to review the slides of lungs for cancerous nodules. He wanted to see if they would notice a gorilla the size of a matchbook glaring angrily at them from inside the slide.

But they didn’t: 83 percent of the radiologists missed it, Drew says.

I was thinking about inattentional blindness a lot last week, because I found myself the victim of it. Along with every other Star Trek fan on the planet. Apparently, on Star Trek: The Next Generation Commander Riker does not sit down like a human does.

I’ve been watching Star Trek since I was capable of understanding that spaceships are cool. This particular incarnation of Trek has been around for 26 years. Apparently no one noticed in all that time. Star Trek fans also tend to be notoriously nitpicky and detail-oriented. I’ve seen fans argue about the schematics or the ship and the physiology of the fictional aliens…but I’ve never once seen them mention this. Jonathan Frakes is probably sitting that way because he’s a tall guy, and that’s easier than sitting normally. But it looks completely strange once you notice it. Like he was taught to use chairs at a rodeo or something (So far Frakes has not offered an alternate explanation).

It makes me wonder what other strange details I’ve been missing. These cognitive shortcuts and glitches are exploited by everyone from con artists to magicians. And no one is immune. Not skeptics, not MENSA members, and apparently not persnickety sci-fi fans. It’s very humbling to be reminded of that. Humbling and hilarious.

I write a lot of jokes. Some of them are in this book.
I also host the podcast of the Skepchick events team, Some Assembly Required, and cohost the WWJTD Podcast.
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