Ash Wednesday, Attention, and Invisible Gorillas Cherie Harder

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The following reflection has been adapted from an email update first published on February 13, 2013.

Growing evidence confirms that it is really quite common to entirely miss the elephant (or gorilla) in the room.

In attempting to better understand the nature of focus and attention, a group of researchers showed test subjects a video of a half dozen basketball players, differentiated by shirt color (half wearing white shirts, the other half black shirts) passing balls back and forth while weaving in and out of a circle. The researchers asked the test subjects to simply count the times a white-shirted player passed the ball.

In the midst of all the ball-passing, a man in a gorilla suit saunters into the middle of the circle, mugs for the camera, beats his chest, and ambles off.  Fully half of the test subjects are so focused on counting the number of passes that they do not even notice the gorilla.

Earlier, NPR reported on a related study, where attention researchers at Harvard Medical School asked a cohort of well-trained radiologists — people capable of detecting the most minute signs of cancer — to review various slides of lungs for cancer nodules.  Superimposed upon the slides in the upper right hand corner was an image of a large man in a gorilla suit angrily shaking his fist.

Fully 83% of the radiologists entirely missed the gorilla.

How is this possible? The researchers concluded that by focusing on the search for one thing — in this case, cancer nodules — the brain had effectively framed one’s vision, and filtered out the appearance of the extraordinary:  “they look right at it, but because they’re not looking for a gorilla, they don’t see that it’s a gorilla.”

NPR’s Alix Speigel concluded:  “In other words, what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see.”

It is a fascinating insight, with application not only for radiologists, but for all of us who wish to see clearly: what we focus on shapes what, how, and whether we see. Our attention shapes our understanding of our lives, relationships, and reality.

Which brings us to this Ash Wednesday, and Lent. Part of the discipline of Lent is to turn our focus away from our appetites and ambitions to the contemplation of our limits and mortality, our need for God, and His sacrifice for us.

In a climate where it is all too easy to be distracted by social media, political shenanigans, or even our own frustrations, Lent offers a new perspective, and reality check.

In the commemoration of this Ash Wednesday, we’re forced to acknowledge our own inevitable death. In recognizing the limits of our capacity, we can more fully see the wonder of God’s power and work all around us. In silence, we may hear His voice more clearly. In solitude, we may better discern His presence. In changing our focus, Lent offers the opportunity to see anew the extraordinary and divine Love that has been right in front of us all along.


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