You may, at one time or another, have been a victim of change blindness. To learn what change blindness is, watch this delightful fifty-one second video. If you don’t think you would have been fooled, think again, because some 50 percent of people don’t notice what changed.
Change blindness demonstrates that seeing something is not the same as actively paying attention to it. Most often, it happens when a large change is accompanied by a visual disturbance that prevents our attention from going to the change location. We may think we’re looking, but we don’t see what’s happening right in front of us.
Here’s another video of an experiment that shows how little we take in. One subject after another fails to notice the switch in which person is helping them. Amazingly (or maybe not), 75 percent of subjects didn’t notice the switch. Listen to their comments (starting about 2:40 into the video) as the people in the video admit that they didn’t see anything unusual at all.
Embarrassing? Maybe. But just imagine if we tried to pay attention to every detail of every object all the time. Our brains would quickly become overloaded. Our brains are designed so that we focus our attention on one thing or another and ignore the rest, and we do this automatically.
This, of course, is what magic is about. We think we’re seeing what’s happening, such as in this card trick, which drives me crazy. Neuroscientists are striving to understand how the brain allows itself to be deceived by magic.
Magic comes down to some basic techniques, such as producing an object from thin air, making an object vanish, and having an object penetrate a solid, all of which the scientist magician in this video quickly illustrates using an invisible purse. (Really!) His key point: Magic breaks down into a method and an effect. It’s difficult to pay attention to both and whenever the brain focuses on one of these, it no longer gives attention to the other.
Neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, authors of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Tells Us About the Deceptions of Mind, have made a career of studying magic as a pathway to understanding the brain and the factors that enable magic to work. It turns out that magicians have known all along what neuroscientists are only just learning.
No article on this topic is complete without mentioning the greatest experiment of them all, dubbed “The Invisible Gorilla.” The effect doesn’t work once you’re aware of it, so if you haven’t seen it, please take ninety seconds to give it a try. I’ve seen numerous people watch this video and miss what subsequently becomes obvious. It turns out 50 percent of people do the same.
In psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simonsbook, The Invisible Gorilla, the authors, who originated the gorilla experiments, explore why people succumb to everyday illusions and what we can do to inoculate ourselves against the illusions’ effects.
Much as we might resist the notion, we’re not as aware of what’s going on around us as we may think. And as far as our brains are concerned, that’s just the way it ought to be.
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.