By Will Carlin
In 1999, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted an experiment that featured a short video of two groups of three people passing around a basketball.
In the video, one of the groups wears black t-shirts and the other wears white. Each of the groups has its own basketball and group members pass the ball exclusively to others in their group. The two groups weave in and out of each other in a seemingly random, but roughly circular fashion.
The subjects in the original experiment were asked to watch the video closely and count the number of passes made by the players wearing white shirts. It seemed simple enough, but because of the random movement of the players and the fact that there are two basketballs, it required some focus to count accurately.
After watching the video, the subjects were asked two things: how many passes did they count and did they notice anything out of the ordinary in the video?
Just over 50% of the subjects failed to report the video’s really unusual element: about halfway through, a woman wearing a full gorilla suit walks right through the basketball players, stands in the middle of them, turns and faces the camera, pounds her chest, and then continues to walk out of the scene.
It seems incredible and hard to believe that a woman wearing a gorilla suit is not noticed by half of the subjects, but this experiment has been successfully duplicated many times and it is the result of a known psychological phenomenon called “Inattentional Blindness.”
Not associated with any vision defects, inattentional blindness is defined on Wikipedia as “…the event in which an individual fails to recognize an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight.” It occurs when there are enough stimuli in a given situation to make it nearly impossible to attend to all of them, so we focus in on one thing, often to the exclusion of others.
In his book, Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, Matthew Syed talks about this result: “What this shows is that attention is a resource with severe capacity limitations. As we make our way through the world (or take part in a sports contest), we are bombarded by so much sensory information that it is impossible to process it all consciously. Attention acts as a kind of filter system that permits only a certain amount of information to hit conscious awareness. But if attention is overloaded (because, say, we are scrupulously count– ing the number of passes made by a basketball team), we are unable to perceive things that are actually there, right in front of our noses.”
Now here’s where it gets interesting: in 2006, an experimenter named Daniel Memmert repeated the test, but he did so with groups that had varying levels of basketball expertise. Not sure what he would find, Mammert discovered that expertise mattered: almost two-thirds of the basketball experts noticed the gorilla while almost two-thirds of the novices did not.
It seems that when we are able to move things from conscious awareness (as when we are learning a new skill) to an automated process (when a new backhand, for example, no longer requires that you think about it), we are able to create spare brain capacity. The expert basketball players had no problem seeing the gorilla; they had spare mental capacity to devote to noticing things other than the passes by the white team.
This is why expert squash players are able to think about tactics and strategy during a match—they are no longer worried about taking the racquet back or foot position or follow through. It is also why, when you are learning a new aspect of the game, that your game often deteriorates for a while. When skills are not automated, they suck up tremendous mental resources, and you have little left for strategic thinking and tactical adjustments.
That’s not all. If you begin to think about a physical skill that has already been automated, it can also deteriorate. By applying conscious focus on an unconscious skill, you effectively can temporarily move it from the automatic system to the conscious and disrupt the synchrony you may have spent years developing (which is why, if you are losing a table tennis match and you ask your opponent what he has changed in his topspin backhand that is making it so good, that backhand may suddenly become error prone).
This is not all bad. If you think about it, this is exactly what you would want to happen if you want to change your stroke: you would first have to get it out of the automatic state, then start to apply conscious thought to change it, and then—slowly— move it back to the automatic system.
Nick Matthew writes in his biography about the moment he saw his backhand on video, hated what he saw, and set about reconstructing it. He said that it was hard and that it took a solid two years to accomplish…his backhand is now considered one of the best of all time.
Matthew is known for his crazy awareness of things going on both inside and outside the court during his matches. For long months, during his backhand reconstruction, however, Nick couldn’t think about much other than his backhand and how it felt worse than ever for months on end.
He didn’t mention any gorillas; he wouldn’t have noticed, anyway.