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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 5, 2010

'Invisible Gorilla' explores mind's limitations

Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

In "The Invisible Gorilla," authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons use science in seeking to inspire doubt in the mind's ability.

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In the mid-'90s, a group of researchers found a positive effect of listening to classical music before taking a test, to the tune of 8 or 9 IQ points. More than a dozen studies since have tried similar experiments and researchers found no effect at all.

And yet, to this day, 40 percent of people believe in the so-called Mozart effect, that simply listening to classical music can make us smarter. (One subsequent study pinpointed a more likely explanation: that our mood improves when we listen to something we enjoy, and we perform better when we're happy.) And although the initial experiment involved adults, its findings have fueled a multimillion-dollar Mozart-for-babies toy and DVD industry.

This is the illusion of potential, that we have vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability just waiting to be accessed one of several mistaken beliefs unraveled in "The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us."

Authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created a "gorilla experiment," in which test subjects asked to watch a routine video did not notice when a person dressed in a gorilla suit walked through the line of sight. It became widely recognized for the way it vividly demonstrates how people fail to notice something that's unexpected.

They call this the illusion of attention, the belief that we notice and remember much more of the world around us than we actually do.

These illusions have real-world implications. Driving while talking on a cell phone has been shown to impair people in a similar way that being intoxicated does. Holding the phone isn't the problem (despite the proliferation of handsfree phone laws); it's that "the more attention-demanding tasks your brain does, the worse it does on each one," the authors write.

The authors seek to inspire doubt in the mind's ability and they absolutely succeed. Our memory isn't as good as we think it is.

Our critical thinking skills are faulty. The link between vaccines and autism has resonated with some parents despite overwhelming scientific evidence and statistics to the contrary.

"The Invisible Gorilla" is filled with fascinating and revealing experiments that call into question assumptions we have about our mental abilities and those of others. The authors argue that being aware of our limitations can help us avoid common pitfalls. While parts of the book are repetitive, this is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand how the mind works.