Maybe you’ve seen the YouTube video. In the short film, a group of students pass around a basketball and viewers are asked to count the number of times the ball changes hands between the students who are wearing white. As most viewers count the passes, they miss something strange that occurs. Midway through the video, a gorilla walks into the group, beats his chest, stares at the viewer and then walks off. The video and research are the work of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, two psychologists who study the concept of “inattentional blindness.” Put simply, when we’re mentally focused on one task, we can miss other activities that are going on. While we’re cognitively attending to one thing, we’re blind to other things that might be happening. It happens all the time. Magicians use the power of inattentional blindness to distract an audience and perform all sorts of slight of hand. While we’re focusing on the ball in one hand, we miss the dozen the magician cleverly pulls out of his pocket with the other hand. Our attention made us blind.
But inattentional blindness is not just the stuff of parlor tricks and illusions. Researchers have found that inattentional blindness can cause trained professionals to miss stimuli and events outside their field of attention. Tafton Drew, an attention researcher at Harvard, studied radiologists who examined cancer scans. The radiologists were given a series of slides and were asked to study each for different forms of cancer. As the radiologists studied scans of lungs and other organs, Drew mixed in small pictures of a gorilla into some of the slides. In Drew’s study, 83% missed the gorilla completely. Even though the radiologists were studying the scans intently, they were inattentionally blind to the images of the gorillas. But the reality is that’s exactly what radiologists are trained to do. They look for cancer. Focusing solely on a single task with great intent caused the radiologists to miss the gorilla in their midst. Psychologists explain inattentional blindness by discussing cognitive load and how our brains can only attend to so many stimuli. While we’re attending to one thing with great cognitive capacity, we can miss other things that are happening.
Inattentional blindness can be viewed as a metaphor to discuss liberal arts education. In a way, our education provides a lens through which each of us views the world. For example, my undergraduate coursework is in physics and for the longest time that’s the lens through which I viewed the world. A trip on the bus was a study in inertia. A baseball game was a series of one-dimensional and two-dimensional motion problems. I’m not saying that I missed other things that were going on because of my physics background, but I viewed the world differently than most non-physicists might have. I was so focused on the physics content in the activities that I was blind to other perspectives.
The purpose of liberal arts education is to provide multiple lenses to view the world. With a strong background in a variety of subject areas, students have the ability to view an issue from multiple perspectives with multiple lenses. Take an issue like fracking. I live in Pennsylvania and the issue is a constant source of debate and discussion. The issue of fracking can be viewed from scientific, political, economic and historical perspectives. As educators, we need to help train students to view issues from as many perspectives as possible. While a broad liberal arts education won’t help our students avoid inattentional blindness in their lives, it will help them be less blind to the other curricular perspectives on issues. Maybe they’ll be able to spot a few gorillas in the process.