The Gorilla Suit

So it’s just another day at the ball counting factory and as one of their top performing ball counters for the fourteenth quarter running, you sure have been counting a lot of balls recently. Well done, buddy! You’ve successfully converted your lifelong passion into your dream job.

But even at the height of their game, champions need a new challenge to keep that passion alive sometimes. Maybe it’s time to mix things up a little!

So instead of counting the balls themselves, this time try to count how many times the guys in the white shirts pass the balls.

I know, I know! Slow down there. What about the guys in the black shirts?

Forget about those goth losers. They do not concern us. Concentrate on counting the passes that the white-shirt wearers make.

So, are you ready? Count the passes; but only the passes that the people wearing white shirts make.

Amazing! You are even better at counting passes than you are at counting balls. And you count balls with the best of them.

But how many gorillas did you see?

If you are like 50% of the people who watched this video in an experiment carried out by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons at Harvard University, you were so caught up in concentrating on the task of counting that you completely failed to notice the dude in the gorilla suit walking into the shot and generally acting kind of gorilla-ish in the middle of the Elite diamond Thieves vs. Missionary Youth Extra-Elevator Ball Passing Championship Playoff.

The experiment was designed to illustrate the concept of selective attention; the idea that in focusing our attention on a particular object or task at hand we tune out other aspects of what is going on around us.
Real Life is so much Creepier than an Black Mirror

This makes sense if you consider the sheer volume of information we are receiving about the world around us at every waking moment versus what we need to be consciously aware of at any one time.

Information about our external environments is constantly relayed to the brain via our sense organs. Our brain takes this information and uses it to construct a good working model of what is actually happening in our environments, which we can use to inform our actions.

But once we have a fairly decent idea of what’s going on around us it’s useful to be able to tune some of that extraneous information out, to allow us to concentrate on more important things. Like counting balls at the ball factory and where to go for lunch after a long, hard morning counting those balls.

The world we perceive is not a perfect copy of the world we live in, but a constantly updated impression of what might or might not be going on around us mediated by our senses and interpreted by the mushy, fallible and easily tricked grey sponges we keep inside our heads.

Unless something happens to make us aware that conditions in our environment have altered, your brain is just filling in the background like the endlessly-looping corridors in an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

Which means our entire sense of reality is only ever as good as our best guess.

Have fun counting those balls, champ!

Elizabeth Loftus

Hey bro, can you help me with my psychology homework? It’s super easy. I just want you to write about that time you got lost in the shopping mall when we were kids.

You remember – you were about five-years-old and we were all looking for you, but then an elderly couple found you and brought you back to mom – you definitely remember.

Oh and what about that time you were in the hot air balloon? That was pretty neat.

You’re not sure you remember? It was the happiest day of your life! Here’s the photo. You look so happy up in the air, floating over the small, sad world of people. Now you know why birds are always shitting on us.

You remember now! Good, of course you do.

That’s because your memory is an illusion.

And no-one knows this better than Elizabeth Loftus, whose pioneering research into the nature of memory and false-memory has ruined our sleep in ways that make Black Mirror seem like the Berenstain Bears.

(picture –  those stupid bears)

Loftus and her research team have designed numerous experiments since the early 1990s, to test whether or not it is possible to create ‘false memories’ in unsuspecting volunteers.

In the famous ‘Lost in the Mall’ study participants’ families were also recruited to help implant the false childhood memory of being lost in a shopping centre.

Participants were given booklets containing the stories of various true events in their childhoods, as well as a false story in which they became lost in the mall. They were then asked to recall as much as possible about each of the events and to write about them over the course of six days. At the end of the experiment the participants were informed that one of the episodes they had been asked to remember was in fact completely made up. When asked to identify which was the false event, twenty-five percent of participants failed to correctly identify which was the false memory and instead identified one of the true events as having been fabricated.

This study was initially designed by one of Loftus’s students, who first carried it out on his brother with the help of their mother and other family members. Which goes to show that just because he’s wearing a lab coat these days, doesn’t mean that your brother has stopped trying to mess with your mind.

And if none of that sounds so bad, just consider this. Our entire sense of self is based on our memories. If memory can be modified or implanted then who exactly are we?



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