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Gorillas in our midst,
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This review is from: The Invisible Gorilla (Hardcover)Looking is necessary for seeing but not sufficient. This sounds like the familiar idea that only connoisseurs can truly "see" the beauty of a work of art. Appreciation of art, however, can be taught, aesthetic judgement cultivated. The error of perception behind the title of this highly readable and thoroughly referenced book is rather less amenable to education. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons begin with a legal case which turned upon just what a Boston police officer did or didn't see in the aftermath of a shooting. They then describe their own classic experiment on inattentional blindness. This mix of real life and laboratory work sets the tone for the whole book, rightly so, because this is the kind of science that has implications for almost every aspect of our lives, from the justice system to how we bring up our children.
Being blind means having a damaged visual system, but you can be perfectly healthy and still inattentionally blind. And because "we lack positive evidence for our lack of attention" we don't even recognize that we have a problem. This "is the basis of the illusion of attention" and the gorilla study strikingly illustrates the powerful and pervasive nature of the illusion. We "experience far less of our visual world than we think we do".
Not seeing gorillas in a laboratory setting is one thing. Failing to see the child who runs in front of your car is quite another. If we're distracted, perhaps by a mobile phone conversation, attentional resources are being diverted from the road ahead, and the chances of noticing the unexpected worsen. Driving and talking "both draw upon the mind's limited stock of attention resources" and thinking we can do both successfully is again the illusion of attention.
This illusion is perfectly normal, and is "a consequence of the way attention works". Given our limited cognitive resources, our minds have evolved the exceptionally useful ability to screen out thousands of irrelevant details in our environment in order to focus more effectively on the salient details.
Chabris and Simons don't stop with the illusion of attention. There's plenty more where that came from. The illusion of memory - "the disconnect between how we think memory works and how it actually works" - is next in line. It's tempting to think that memories are like photographs or videos of events we have experienced, and to explain forgetfulness in terms of a failure of access to those stored records. What is stored in memory, however, "is not an exact replica of reality, but a re-creation of it" and, moreover, memory depends "both on what actually happened and on how we made sense of what happened".
It's difficult to overstate the importance of the illusion of memory, of how easy it is to "induce false memories" and "literally revise history" while at the same time remaining confident in the accuracy of our memories. The rich details we remember are quite often wrong, but they feel right, especially since we often use "vividness and emotionality as an indicator of accuracy". Chabris and Simons discuss a case where eyewitness memory played a crucial part in convicting an innocent man, and such cases are by no means isolated.
The broader implications for our culture are wide ranging. For example, although beyond the scope of this book, a question that interests me is how the illusion of memory might have influenced the creation of the gospels. How accurate are they as a record of historical events, given the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony, the difficulty of forming and holding accurate memories, the need to re-create these memories each time the story is retold, the long time between the supposed events and the eventual writing down of the stories, and the involvement at each and every stage of a fallible human mind capable of getting things wrong while believing the truth is being told?
Chabris and Simons wisely steer clear of such speculation: there's more than enough material for them to deal with as it is. As well as illusions of attention and memory, we are subject to illusions of confidence (we think we're more skilled than we are), knowledge (we think we know more than we do) and potential (we think there are reservoirs of untapped mental ability in our brains). Some people, of course, are actually highly skilled or more knowledgeable than average, but the authors remind us that experts are no better than ordinary novices in situations where they have no special skill. Their expertise "lies not in greater attention, but in more precise expectations formed by their experience and training".
Even the beliefs and expectations of experts, however, can lead them to perceive a pattern where none exists. Dr Andrew Wakefield was a credible authority when he first brought to public attention the supposed link between vaccines and autism. (The link is illusory; in fact, there's not even a correlation, let alone a causal link.) The illusion of cause was responsible for his mistake. There are three major contributions - pattern, correlation and chronology - and all three converged in this case. Wakefield saw a cluster of autism cases, that these children had been vaccinated, and that the symptoms developed after vaccination. He then drew his now infamous inference, that MMR "causes" autism.
A more careful scientist would have realized that no such conclusion could possibly be drawn from such a small sample, that there was possibly not even an association, and that further research was certainly needed. A scientist who had read this book would not have called a press conference and triggered a media storm that was to last years and spread unnecessary fear of vaccination. A journalist who had read this book would not have reported the story without asking some searching questions. Finally, a mother of a vulnerable child who had read this book would have been able to arrive at a more informed conclusion about the risks involved.