I heard a story on NPR this morning about radiologists, trained to search for the smallest of irregularities in a scan, missing a gorilla that was superimposed on a slide of a lung. 83% of radiologists failed to note the gorilla. The effect is called “inattentional blindness”. The news story gave this explanation:
This wasn’t because the eyes of the radiologists didn’t happen to fall on the large, angry gorilla. Instead, the problem was in the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas, so “they look right at it, but because they’re not looking for a gorilla, they don’t see that it’s a gorilla.”
I looked up the image on NPR’s website and even though I knew I was looking for a gorilla, I failed to see it at first. I didn’t expect it to be that obvios. The idea for the radiologist study came from an experiment in the field of attention research, called The Invisible Gorilla Study. Here is a task performed in that original study:
Are you among the 50% of people who missed the man in the gorilla suit walking through the group of basket ball players? I saw it, but I am wondering if I would have without expecting to see it. My brain was expecting the unexpected, so of course I noticed it.
Inside the box, there are no gorillas
The radiologists and the test subjects watching the video were thinking “inside the box”. As was I when I looked at the lung scan for the first time. We, who see ourselves as “the creative people”, take pride in being able to “think outside the box” (although we may have wittier expressions for it). But is that always true? Is it part of our disposition? Is the ability to see the gorilla in the picture or – on the other end of the spectrum – the forest for the trees what makes us creative? Or can anyone learn it? Do we have to practice it?
Probably a little bit of all of the above. In the creative thinking workshops we offer our clients, we challenge them to leave the box behind, to find new answers to old questions, or ask questions they didn’t even know they had. One of the tasks we frequently give is the 9 Dot Puzzle: Connect all 9 dots with no more than 4 straight lines, without the pen leaving the paper.
The gorilla studies reminded me of this. At first, my eyes were so focused on the dots, that I didn’t see all the room around them that allowed me to solve the puzzle. But then, simply being aware that I was asked to think outside the box was helpful. It opened up the possibility of different solutions. Knowing that there will be a gorilla in a video, allows me to count while looking at something other than a basketball.
How do you ensure you are not missing the gorillas? How can we remain open for the mere possibility of a gorilla on our quest to remain open for serendipity?