How Attention Works

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Stefan Van Der Stigchel. The subtitle is “Finding Your Way in a World Full of Distraction.” The book begins with the following quote by the father of American Psychology, William James”

“Every one knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state.”

Van Der Stichel begins by writing about how a walk in the woods seems. We enjoy the sight of all the trees around us and the myriad shades of green. We just allow our visual environment to work its magic. Our eyes are our window to the world. All we need do is to open them. It happens automatically. Spotting a squirrel in a tree or following the tracks of a horse are reflex actions. We believe that what we see is the whole picture: stable, rich and vastly superior to any virtual environment.

But Van Der Stichel follows with this paragraph. “However, we actually take less information on board from our surroundings than we might think. For example, movies are full of continuity errors that viewers fail to spot. Very few of us ever take any notice when a jacket that was hanging on a coatrack is suddenly not there anymore in the next scene. The legendary “Star Wars” movies are famous for these kinds of mistakes. Objects move from one position to another, and a background full of plants and trees suddenly changes into a barren desert. You only even notice these discrepancies when someone takes the trouble to point them out to you, with the result that it is almost impossible not to see them the next time. Of course, movie directors do their best to keep such mistakes to a minimum, but the fact that neither they nor the people who edit their movies manage to spot these errors in the first place demonstrates just how easy it is to miss them.”

Sunday magazines like to present two versions of a photograph. These versions look like they are identical, but they are not. The objective of this puzzle is to spot the discrepancies. This is a very difficult, time-consuming task to accomplish successfully. But these differences are quite subtle.

However, there is a film clip where something dramatic happens that most viewers fail to notice. This is the infamous “gorilla clip” that many people have seen. The clip shows two groups of students throwing a basketball back and forth. The viewer’s task is to count the number of time the group with the white T-shirts throws the ball. At a certain, a gorilla walks into the frame. He beats his chest with his fists and then walks out of the shot again. The majority of those seeing the clip for the first time fail to notice this gorilla.

After Van Der Stichel had shown this clip to his students he told them he was going to show them a clip again. He writes that they paid special attention to the gorilla with the aim of showing their lazy professor that he should know better than to try to fool them with the same old trick again. But this time he showed them a new version of the clip, one in which the curtains hanging behind the basketball-playing students gradually change color and one of the players walks abruptly out of the frame. The effect was even greater than the first clip. Almost none of his students noticed either of these two major changes, primarily because they were too busy waiting for the gorilla to appear.

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