In a classic study, Dr. Simon of the University of Illinois has demonstrated the now accepted phenomenon of inattentional blindness. The study was named “Gorillas in Our Midst.” Dr. Simon gave volunteer subjects the distracting task of counting the number of times a basketball was passed from teammates on the white team. To complicate the task there were an equal number of team members wearing black also passing the basketball between teammates. To further complicate the task, members of both teams moved around the area, while the camera remained fixed. In the most dramatic design in the series of experiments, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit walked slowly into the middle of the scene, stopped, faced the camera, pounded her chest, and then slowly walked off. In a still photograph of the scene you can’t miss her. She’s right there among them, so you wonder how anyone could miss her. But in the experiment, nearly 50% of the volunteers did not see the gorilla. They were first asked if they saw anything unusual, and the questions progressed to: “Did you see the gorilla?” Respondents answered, “What gorilla?” The explanation is that attention to a task, or expectation, may make us blind to something unexpected that is right in front of us. The study has implications, for example, motorists learning to look for bicycles they are not expecting to see.
In a similar type of experiment, Dr. Simon demonstrates change blindness. Subjects talk to a stranger for 10 to 15 seconds, after which two men carrying a door walk through the conversation and a substitute person resumes the conversation. Again, 50% of the subjects failed to notice that they were now talking to a different person, even though that person was of a different build, height, sounded different, and was wearing different clothing.
The animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin, who is autistic, uses inattentional blindness to help explain why it is “normal” people literally see a different visual world than animals and autistics, even though our ocular apparatus is similar. According to Grandin, autistics and animals tend to focus on details that “normal” people do not notice. Psychologists might conclude that inattentional and change blindness are like optical illusions; they demonstrate limitations in the way our brains process and perceive incoming perceptual stimuli. That may be a partial explanation. The rest of the explanation has to do with attention, because some of us are seeing things that others are not. The results of being herded in this way can range from inconsequential to tragic.
The potentially blinding streams of culture
We are, to varying extents, a product of our family and culture. On an intellectual level, most people would probably agree without really understanding the extent to which our Perception flows automatically from that participation. And it’s easier to see other people’s blind spots or bias than it is to see our own. Sometimes, we subconsciously defend our psyche with convenient inattention.
On Bill Moyers Journal, Moyers was interviewing Wendell Potter (7/10/09), a former vice president for the health insurance giant Cigna. Potter had a post Cigna conversion. As vice president, he fully subscribed to the corporate mission to maximize profits for their Wall Street investors. When Moyers asked why he failed to see the consequences of his behavior on all the uninsured millions of Americans, Potter stated it just never occurred to him. That’s because he was streaming a corporate philosophy, and the uninsured millions became part of the world he literally could not see. His conversion occurred when he actually witnessed an event at the Wise County Fair in West Virginia that opened his eyes. He witnessed hundreds of uninsured patients lining up to receive free treatment from volunteer doctors in tents, on rain soaked pavement, and in animal stalls. Having the experience of witnessing actual people who were sometimes driving from faraway places to receive health care was what affected his view of our health care system. He said he had bought the idea that America had great health insurance, and did not realize until that moment the extent to which our health insurance attitudes are manipulated by a streamed view, in other words, hype.
What is atypical about this story is not the situational blindness – the streaming of Perception – but the conversion. He deserves a hero’s recognition for making that conversion.
Our worldview is vulnerable to exterior wills and streamed perception. Sometimes, we react oppositionally, embracing a polarized view that expresses our distrust or desire for disconnection. Even a polarized response has potential for screening out a larger View. What we do not expect to see or experience, we will not. There are aspects of the world that people do not see because they are distracted or trained to look the other way. There are aspects of the world to which people are blind but could learn to see. So I ask the question: if there is a gorilla in our midst, and we don’t see it, was it actually there? Without that still photo to corroborate, which almost never exists in real life, we may insist it was not, is not, and will never be.
When it come to the nuances of Mystery, we experience varying degrees of awareness. But given the proper attention, a wider View can become manifest. Like scales falling from our eyes. The expression is New Testament biblical. If you can understand how there are scales on the eyes to start with, maybe they will fall off your eyes too.
The antidote of mindfulness
Mindfulness is classically defined as an awareness of self and surroundings. It starts with the awareness of becoming fully present in the moment: breath, emotions, body sensations – coming home to the experience of ourselves and the world around us from a compassionate center. We cannot maintain genuine compassion if we limit our perception to well-guarded views.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, we are not practicing mindfulness if we do not feel the healing aspects of the world through our bodies. He has a specific meditation: The Sun My Heart, in which we feel the life giving aspects of the sun to Mother Earth through our bodies. “Our body is not limited to what is inside the boundary of our skin.” It is a way of feeling empathy with Nature. Then he quotes Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” From here it is a short link to nature spirits and Soul. Mindfulness is a sky full of water that we relish a drop at a time, or like a cloud.
Next: Stalking Our Influences