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.
You can also follow me on Facebook or that bird thing.

About geekysteven
  • http://twitter.com/OTOC_Laury Laury Plant

    I can honestly say I did notice Rikers (Frakes) ‘sit down’ approach when TNG was still on the air, but didn’t think it was a big thing then. It was like the ‘Picard Maneuver’ (The shirt version, not the BS warp jump trick) it was his trademark thing. That and in the 24th century, chairs apparently have 2′ backs, not 3-4′ like normal now. Go figure.

    • Artor

      I misread your last sentence and thought there was some Shakespearean innuendo in there about a chair with 2 backs.
      Meh- it was probably better in the original Klingon.

  • Glodson

    This is why eye witness accounts aren’t entirely reliable. We don’t always notice details if we aren’t actively looking for them. Like the Riker video. I doubt I would have noticed that detail if not for the preceding paragraph.

    We see patterns in random events(which is why a basic understanding of statistics is helpful), and we miss big details that we aren’t focused on. And worse, we can be tricked into doing both by clever people.

    • http://www.facebook.com/geekysteven Steven Olsen


  • Brad C.

    It is apparently as a result of a back injury suffered by Jonathan Frakes:

    “Frakes had a back injury, caused by having a job moving furniture. The result is the “Riker Lean,” where you often see him on set leaning on chairs or consoles, or with one leg propped up on something. You can also see his body is tilted a little when he’s standing up straight.

    I’d guess this has something to do with that. For each time we see him sit down, he probably had to do that same move dozens of times for each take. Just lifting one leg and sitting right down was probably easier for him than turning, contorting his back, and squatting down over and over.”


    • Glodson

      That makes sense. Watching it, I was thinking it was just a quirk he picked up being rather tall. But that makes a ton of sense.

      • Artor

        Being tall also tends to contribute to and exaggerate the effects of back injuries. Believe me, I know. (ow…)

    • http://www.facebook.com/geekysteven Steven Olsen

      Did not know that!

  • unbound55

    I am with Laury Plant. I actually noticed it when the show was on, but there was so many other goofy things going on (the first season is really rather cheesy overall) that it just wasn’t a big deal at the time. Don’t get me wrong, I was (and am) a very big fan of the series.

    In regards to the radiologists, I have absolutely zero issues with the majority of them not seeing the gorilla in the x-ray. I still have the images from the discovery of a tumor in one of my adrenal glands, and, to this day, I have no idea how (or honestly what) the radiologist saw the issue. The radiologist is not trying to debunk tricks or magicians, she/he is looking for patterns that indicate an issue…and usually under a high pressure schedule to look through a lot of images.

    • http://www.facebook.com/geekysteven Steven Olsen

      So, just to clarify, I’m not saying it’s a problem with radiologists, or that they are incompetent. But that this particular glitch could be worrisome if the person’s job is to notice something strange. I got nothin’ but love for the radiologists.

      • Artor

        The most important part is how this relates to eye-witnesses in court cases. I saw the gorilla clip in relation to a case where a cop in hot pursuit of a suspect failed to see something obvious that killed a bystander. (I think- the gorilla overwhelmed the details) The court was skeptical that anyone could miss something like that, but this shows how easy it is to miss a dancing gorilla, if you’re focussed on chasing criminals or cancer.

    • Glodson

      It is tunnel vision. They are looking from specific patterns. And they don’t look at anything which detracts from this.

      I don’t find it surprising at all they missed the gorilla.

      From the original article:

      This wasn’t because the eyes of the radiologists didn’t happen to fall on the large, angry gorilla. Instead, the problem was in the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas. “They look right at it, but because they’re not looking for a gorilla, they don’t see that it’s a gorilla,” Drew says

      But I would say that this is not unsettling. Strange, but these people are set to the task of finding cancer. If it isn’t cancer, they don’t care. So they miss details that those of us not looking for cancer actively and intently would see.

      And there’s no way I would spot the cancer.I just happen to know what a gorilla looks like.

      • Zinc Avenger

        On the other hand, if we have an outbreak of intra-cranial gorillas, we’re all doomed.

        • Glodson

          If there’s a such thing as cancer gorillas in our bloodstream, I doubt all the radiologists in the world could help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    “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.”

    There’s some evidence that more intelligent/educated people are easier to fool because they take more advantage of such cognitive shortcuts. Most magicians will tell you that a roomful of kids are the hardest audience to fool.

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