Friday, August 29, 2008

Gorillas In The Midst

Imagine you're watching a soccer game. Your favorite team is wearing white and the other team is in black. In the midst of the action, someone in a dark gorilla suit calmly walks to the center of the pitch, waves to the crowd, then walks off. Do you think you would notice this peculiar event? Most people might say yes. Most people would be wrong.

Our perceptual system unconsciously filters out the vast majority of information available to us. Because of this filtering process, we actually experience only a tiny trickle of information, by some estimates a trillionth of what is actually out there. And yet from that trickle our minds construct what we expect to see. So when we pay attention to our favorite white-shirted soccer team, the likelihood of clearly seeing darker objects moving about is substantially reduced. That includes even obvious objects, like gorillas. Psychologists call this phenomenon "inattentional blindness," and it's just one of many ways in which our prior beliefs, interests and expectations shape the way we perceive the world and cause us to overlook the obvious.

Because of these blind spots, some common aspects of human experience literally cannot be seen by those who've spent decades embedded within the Western scientific worldview. That worldview, like any set of cultural beliefs inculcated from childhood, acts like the blinders they put on skittish horses to keep them calm. Between the blinders we see with exceptional clarity, but seeing beyond the blinders is not only exceedingly difficult, after a while it's easy to forget that your vision is restricted.

An important class of human experience that these blinders exclude is psychic phenomena, those commonly reported spooky experiences, such as telepathy and clairvoyance, that suggest we are deeply interconnected in ways that transcend the ordinary senses and our everyday notions of space and time. Well then, is this gorilla in the soccer game, or not? One way to find out is to study the question using the highly effective tools of science while leaving the worldview assumptions behind. That way we can study the question without prejudice, like watching a soccer game without preferring either the white or black team. Neutral observers are much more likely to spot a gorilla, if one is indeed present.

Research on parapsychology is largely taboo in academia, but two Harvard scientists recently set out to settle, once and for all, the age-old question: Is extrasensory perception, or ESP, real? Their sophisticated experiment answers: No, at least, not as far as they can tell using high-tech brain scanners to detect neural evidence of it. Finally, a sophisticated magnetic resonance imaging brainscanner was used (technically, an fMRI), for the first time, to answer this age-old question. The high-tech "no" answer seems conclusive unless you read the published outcome, which reported that one of 16 tests conducted showed a stupendously significant outcome exactly in alignment with what was predicted if psi (i.e., a string of multiple successful experiments by several independent investigators producing lawful and replicable outcomes)were real.

Max Planck, the physicist who dreamt up the idea of the "quantum" in quantum mechanics, once wrote, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." One day a threshold will be crossed, and on that day some of the invisible gorillas in our midst will become a bit easier to see.