Tell me if this sounds familiar: A task or situation consumes your thoughts. It could be a boss fight you just can’t beat or a number on the scale that just won’t budge. Perhaps it’s a bad situation in your life, whether money’s tight, your significant other dumped you, or all of the Nintendo Switch preorders sold out before you could get one. Whether the situation is dire or just inconvenient, you may just be suffering from a case of obsession-induced tunnel vision, and failing to notice an invisible gorilla in your life.
First things first, watch this video:
Psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris produced the video, based on an earlier experiment conducted by Ulric Neisser in 1975. Did you notice the gorilla the first time you watched? Across numerous test groups, 50% of participants failed to notice the ape. Some groups dipped as low as 16% spotting him. The experiment hit the Internet and became a viral hit, and this was in those strange times before YouTube when videos spread mostly by email attachment. Simons and Chabris were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize (a parody of the Nobel Prize that recognizes outlandish scientific experiments) for the Invisible Gorilla test. The video remains the best known inattentional blindness demonstration to this day.
Inattentional blindness, also known as perceptual blindness, is a psychological attention deficit completely unrelated to vision defects. More simply put, it’s a failure to notice an unexpected person or object in plain sight. Think of it like an accidental, vision-based equivalent to confirmation bias: a person becomes so engrossed in following one visual stimulus that they unintentionally ignore other present stimuli. Numerous studies have found no correlation between actual visual impairment and inattentional blindness, anyone can fall into it. Numerous theories exist as to why this exists, but I won’t bore you with more jargon and case studies.
After all, this is a motivation and self improvement blog, not a college psychology lecture.
But It’s Right There!
You’re probably wondering at this point why I’m writing about people watching a video of people playing basketball and not noticing a man in a gorilla suit or a moonwalking bear. Well, inattentional blindness doesn’t just cloud what we see with our eyes, it also clouds our own thoughts. That’ s right, the invisible gorilla sneaks into your mind.
When we obsess over a situation or task, we create a mental case of tunnel vision. We think only of what we have observed or learned so far, and bang our heads against the wall in frustration when the solutions we devise repeatedly fail. Think back to elementary school/high school/college math classes. There were always those problems that stumped you, and never seemed to work out no matter how many times you tried to solve it. Then, a friend or teacher walks up to you and shows you a solution that clears the confusion right up, and you wonder why it never occurred to you before.
I’ve experienced inattentional blindness often through my job as a web developer. I will sit for hours staring at code I write, completely perplexed as to why a plugin for a client’s website isn’t working. I examine my code over and over then refresh the webpage and find the plugin still fails to function. When I finally take a step back and ask for help from a coworker, I receive a simple suggestion that magically makes the project work as intended. Sometimes the error is as simple as a missing semicolon on a CSS value.
It’s kind of embarrassing how often that happens.
These invisible gorillas pop up in more than just school or work. The same principle can apply to people who complain about the same awful relationship situations they find themselves in over and over. Without some self examination as to why you keep attracting crazy women/men and taking action to change it, you’ll keep experiencing one fiery breakup after another.
Spot the Invisible Gorilla
So how do we bring some light into these tunnels and find that hidden simian? It all comes down to mindfulness. When we find ourselves in that state of mind where we can only think of one approach or obsess over one issue or task, the best thing we can do is take a step back and try to break the cycle of focus. It sounds counterproductive to break a chain of thought, but it’s like rebooting a computer: obsession slowly consumes your mental RAM and slows your ‘system’ down, but a nice little restart clears the slate and lets you function at full speed again.
Take a break from whatever wracks your mind. Meditate or journal about it. List out the components of the problem. With thorough and calm analysis, some light can be shed on the tunnel we find ourselves in.
If taking a breather from the task or situation doesn’t reveal the invisible gorilla, it’s time to ask for help. To take a quotation from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hit up a friend, family member, or colleague to get an outsider’s perspective. You’ll be amazed how often someone else can spot an obvious solution seemingly in plain sight.
You feel incredibly stupid afterwards, but hey, you figured out the problem.
No More Monkey Business
The invisible gorilla can be an ally, not an enemy. You can make intentional blindness work for you. Embrace it when you set your mind to a task, tune out the world so you can keep focus. When that focus turns into frustration, however, take a step back and slow down your thoughts to see clearly. The solutions to our problems very often lie in plain sight. We just have break the self-inflicted state of tunnel vision and spot that invisible gorilla.