The invisible gorilla in the room

October 23, 2010

How well do we pay attention, asks psychology professor at Union College and co-author of “The Invisible Gorilla” Christopher Chabris.

In answering that query, Chabris, who investigates the illusions of our mind, also finds out how well we think we pay attention, which, in an era of short attention spans, is critical to know and understand.

In particular, Chabris focuses on the illusions of attention and confidence and everyday illusions.

“Illusions are an aspect of the mind that everybody shares,” he says. “They are also part of the way our minds are built.”

When it comes to the illusion of attention, “we can all retrieve fairly vivid memories of a lot things that happen in our lives,” Chabris says. “It’s just that the vividness is sometimes the illusion that masks inaccuracy and lack of detail.”

Our everyday illusions, more formerly known as mental illusions, are hard to overcome and can also be very dangerous. A prime example of one is thinking we’re able to pay attention to the road while driving and talking on a cell phone.

“The power of this gorilla video is that it can show us instantaneously how much we’re missing and can really reveal a lot about how our minds work,” Chabris says.

The third illusion, the illusion of confidence, shows that people on average think they are above average. This is, surprisingly, what criminals and chess masters have in common: both illustrate the illusion of confidence. As do people on TV who tell you what stocks to buy.

“We think we’re better at all kinds of skills than we actually are,” Chabris says.

Scarily, it’s the least competent that have the most inflated senses of their own abilities. That said, Chabris adds, confidence is, to some extent, a trait. So within an area where you have some knowledge you want to be much better aware of how skilled you actually are and that might help you get better, Chabris says:

Self-knowledge is the most important kind of knowledge and, perhaps, this helps you to be more forgiving of other people’s mistakes.

As for the connection between beauty and brain? It is the reward circuit. It’s the part of the brain that responds to rewarding stimuli. Looking at attractive people activates the same part of the brain as all these other more physiological, hard-wired rewards like chocolate, heat and cold.

Ultimately, we should know that if we don’t need the information, chances are we’re not storing it very reliably. And we should recognize that our intuitive concepts can lead us very astray.

“Watch for the gorilla in your midst is my six-word summary,” ends Chabris, playing off of another the book Six-Word Memoirs, co-authored by Larry Smith, who was another 2010 PopTech conference speaker .

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