A new study into inattentional blindness gives an important reminder of just how profound our brains’ shortcomings often are.
Subjects in an experiment were told to follow a jogger through a park, and to pay particular attention to something entirely arbitrary – in this case, to count how many times the jogger touched his hat. This made sure they couldn’t focus much on the rest of their surroundings. (I presume the jogger is also a part of the experiment, not someone just passing by, though this isn’t explicitly spelled out in the article.)
As a result, nearly half of the participants entirely failed to notice a violent staged brawl going on between several students, only a little way off to the side of the road.
That was during the day. When it was dark, this oblivious proportion went up to two-thirds.
The experiment was inspired by – but perhaps too late to help – a police officer given a 34-month sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice, after claiming not to have witnessed a similar fight, under similar conditions, while chasing a suspect. It was decided that he couldn’t possibly have failed to see something so obvious, and must be lying to try and cover the incident up.
The conviction was overturned on an unrelated technicality, but the guy still seems to have been somewhat screwed over. We need to be willing to look out for when science tells us things about the unreliability of our brains, which go against how we feel like we perceive things.
If the title of this post is a mystery to you, it’s a reference to a classic experiment into this same quirky brain phenomenon.