Your Brain is Conspiring Against You: the reality it won’t let you see

Lucas, the hero of Mantis, possesses a unique genius—the ability to see everything that is in plain sight. If you don’t think that’s a special ability, spend the next minute taking this test:

If you missed the obvious, you’ve got lots of company. About half the people who take this test miss what’s right there in plain sight. Those who do see the obvious often miscount the number of passes. If you counted the passes correctly and saw the gorilla, you’re pretty special, but chances are you would probably still fail the much more complicated version of the test that Lucas takes in the opening of Mantis—excerpted a few paragraphs below.

The video test above is known as The Invisible Gorilla and was conducted by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University. Inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness are the terms used to describe our failure to notice some stimulus that is in plain sight.

As the Invisible Gorilla test shows, our brains simply won’t let us perceive everything before our eyes. We either focus on the reality of the passes or the reality of the gorilla. We can’t do both—something’s gotta go. The implication, of course, is that in the midst of everything we do—driving to work, walking through the mall, eating dinner at a restaurant—huge chunks of reality are passing straight through us, completely unnoticed.

But are we only missing commonly accepted reality? We all accept—though for some of us only during the second viewing—that someone dressed in a gorilla suit did indeed really walk through the basketball players. But is it possible we’re still missing something? Not just in this video, but wherever we are. Are we constantly missing things our brain refuses to accept no matter where we apply our focus or our attention? In Mantis these are questions that Lucas is forced to reckon with as his race to rescue his beloved takes him deeper and deeper into strangeness. More on this in a future blog. For now, an excerpt from when Lucas takes the perception test:

At nine o’clock I’m sitting beside Nathan at a long table with ten other account managers in a dark boardroom watching a video clip designed to test our leadership abilities. On a large HD wall screen, two teams—red shirts and white shirts—scramble around a soccer field. Each team is passing a ball between its members—fast passes, long ones, short ones, looping ones. We’re supposed to count the number of passes the red team makes. While I’m trying to do that, Nathan’s leg is vibrating spastically beside me, not just because the test is difficult, but because just prior to it, our instructor announced that due to a restructuring plan only one director position is now available. The others around the table, chewing fingernails and shifting endlessly in their seats, aren’t any less terrified they might fail to advance up the corporate ladder.

A minute into the video, something strange happens on screen. I watch it while continuing to count the passes. A little while later, the scene stops, freezing both balls in mid pass.

Our instructor—a bald and muscular overpaid consultant sheathed indecently in a snug turtleneck—flips the lights back on, retracts the blinds. We all narrow our eyes at the sudden rush of sunlight flooding into the room. The instructor takes a seat at the head of the table and asks us to enter the number of completed passes we counted on the electronic tablets in front of us. Nathan enters thirty-three. I enter thirty-six and kick him under the table. He glances over, copies my answer. I clear my tablet and re-enter twenty-eight before submitting it. Nathan sees what I’m doing and kicks me back, but it’s too late.

The instructor tells us the correct answer, thirty-six, and that only two people in the room got it right. Nathan shoots a confused glance in my direction.

“But,” the instructor says, “that’s not what this test is really about.” He wants to know if we saw anything out of the ordinary happen on the field.

Around the table, heads jerk back, swivel around. I tap out fox on the touch-screen keypad and let Nathan see. In my periphery, I catch his eyes bulging. I give him another kick. With a hesitant hand he copies my entry. Again I erase my answer, press enter, submitting a blank.

After our answers or non-answers are in, the instructor checks his screen, where our data is compiled. His brow knots up, and he looks over at Nathan, squints at him. Then he stands and tells us we just went through a variation on a standard psychology experiment that tests perceptual blindness—the human tendency to miss things. In today’s version, which is intentionally harder than the usual tests, often only one person in ten sees the strange occurrence, frequently no one does. Today, two people saw what everyone else missed. The instructor then reruns the video at a slower speed and this time no one misses a fox running into the middle of the field. Gasps of incredulity and nervous laughter erupt around the room as the fox weaves between the players’ legs, running past the ball at one point, before trotting off.

“I know it’s impossible to believe that most of you missed this, but you did. And in business,” the instructor says, “you need to keep your eye on the ball, but you also need to see the fox sneaking into your marketplace. We’re looking for a leader with that ability.” He then explains that one of the people who saw the fox missed a number of the passes, which is typical. “If your eye’s not on the ball,” he says, “it’s a little easier to spot the fox.” He further explains that what isn’t typical for this test is the ability to count the passes accurately and see the fox, because attention to the task is what causes the blindness. Of the thousands who have been tested, only three people have ever demonstrated that ability. Today, a fourth person enters that elite group. Everyone looks around the room with jealous eyes wondering who he’s talking about. Then the instructor asks everybody to leave, except Nathan.

I tap Nathan on the back as I get to my feet. He looks up at me, sheepish, speechless, his mouth hanging open. “You deserve it, bud,” I say. As I file out of the room with the rest of my peers, I’m struck by the irony of our instructor’s own perceptual blindness, his inability to spot our cheating right under his nose. But it never would have occurred to a man like him that in the competition for a promotion one candidate might sacrifice himself for another.