How we pay attention


I heard a fascinating story about attention on NPR last week. Apparently, when our minds are focused on one thing, we often miss something else that is very obvious, like a man in a gorilla suit, for example!

Researchers at Harvard, led by Trafton Drew, conducted a study in which they showed slides of lungs to radiologists, who are trained to find cancer nodules where most us wouldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Inspired by the famous “Selective Attention Test” featuring a gorilla suit (see the video below!) the researchers planted an image of a man in a gorilla suit on some of the slides, and asked the researchers what they saw. 83% didn’t see the gorilla! From the NPR story:

This wasn’t because the eyes of the radiologists didn’t happen to fall on the large, angry gorilla. Instead, the problem was in the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas. “They look right at it, but because they’re not looking for a gorilla, they don’t see that it’s a gorilla,” Drew says.

There is a beauty in being so focused on a task that we don’t notice anything else around us. Psychologists call this “flow.” My daughter, working on an art project in her room, is a beautiful example of that. But there can also be a danger when we focus so much on one thing, particularly, as the NPR piece points out, when that is something we are trained to or expecting to see, that we are unable to notice anything else.

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. So, Drew says, we need to think carefully about the instructions we give to professional searchers like radiologists or people looking for terrorist activity, because what we tell them to look for will in part determine what they see and don’t see.

Pastors are asked to pay attention to a great many things, often at the same time. What do you notice about yourself when you are trying to do a focused task, like write a sermon, versus when you are visiting with parishioners after church, which requires a totally different kind of attention? Are you better at one kind of focusing than another? Would you see a man in a gorilla suit if he wandered past your door?

–Caren Swanson

Image by Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe, via NPR’s Shots blog


2 thoughts on “How we pay attention

  1. Interesting article thanks. I am guessing this is where the expression Gorilla in the room came from. I myself am often guilty of focusing on one thing and people think I am zoning out when I am actually thinking extremely hard about something. Maybe that is in essence what zoning out is though, idk.

    • Yes, Thomas, I never thought about it, but I bet you’re right–that likely IS where the gorilla in the room expression comes from! And it is all too easy to miss when we’re “zoning out,” isn’t it?

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