Selective Attention

You’ve probably heard this one a million times: “Things aren’t always as they seem”. Magicians, artists, philosophers, advertisers, and many others base their whole lives on that aphorism. And why shouldn’t they? It’s demonstrably true.

Despite our ability to discern up to 20 million individual colors and an unbelievable 50,000 distinct scents, what’s most impressive is often what we don’t detect. Our auditory capability is so advanced that it can function as a biological sonar much as it does for dolphins and bats. The human brain is capable of things even the most advanced computers cannot hope to replicate, yet our ability to process the full range of stimuli in a busy environment can be extremely poor.

Check out this video clip I received via an IAC newsletter):

Another dozen video clips and experiments can be found on the researcher’s site. I was fascinated by this experiment, because I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t see the gorilla at all. They note on their site:

Our minds don’t work the way we think they do. We think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we’re actually missing a whole lot.

Again and again, we think we experience and understand the world as it is, but our thoughts are beset by everyday illusions. We write traffic laws and build criminal cases on the assumption that people will notice when something unusual happens right in front of them. We’re sure we know where we were on 9/11, falsely believing that vivid memories are seared into our mind with perfect fidelity. And as a society, we spend billions on devices to train our brains because we’re continually tempted by the lure of quick fixes and effortless self-improvement.

I can’t help but wonder how this phenomenon affects those of us who fly. Among lower-time pilots (whether that’s low time in general, or just new to the aircraft or operation), “selective attention” is sometimes referred to as overloading or task saturation, and while it’s especially common among student pilots in busy environments, anyone can fall prey to it. You’re so focused on this thing that you don’t notice a warning horn going off right in your ear.

A related example from the professionals would be Eastern Airlines Flight 401, which crashed into a swamp because they were so preoccupied with a landing gear indicator light issue that none of the three pilots in the cockpit noticed that nobody was flying the airplane.

Even in low-stress situations, there are illusions present every day when you fly. Some we’re well aware of, such as graveyard spiral, leans, coriolis illusion, etc. while operating at night. But others are more fleeting and hard to pin down. Are we seeing what’s really happening on those gauges and instruments? Did we hear what we thought we heard from that controller?

So tell me, have you ever missed the gorilla walking right past your glareshield?

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