Invisible Gorillas

Invisible Gorillas
Did you notice the gorilla? A very interesting story about a phenomenon called the illusion of attention. Guy Tal tells us how our brains suppress sensory information selectively before we become conscious of it

Some years ago, scientists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons came up with an interesting experiment. They created a video showing two teams of basketball players; players on one team wore white shirts and players on the other team wore black. At the beginning of the video, the viewer is instructed to count the number of passes made by players wearing white shirts. After counting passes for a few minutes, the video comes to an end and the viewer is asked: “Did you notice the gorilla?”

Half way through the video, a person wearing a gorilla suit walks into the scene, bangs its chest and then walks away slowly. About 50% of viewers, preoccupied with counting passes, never notice it. Chabris and Simons named the phenomenon the illusion of attention.

We like to believe that if something interesting occurs in front of our eyes, our conscious mind will be aware of it. In truth, we are aware of far less than we believe we are. In fact, there are parts of our brains whose purpose is to suppress sensory information selectively before we become conscious of it. Our brain simply is not powerful enough to process everything that our senses detect. Moreover, we are quite bad at multi-tasking. The more things we try to pay attention to, the more we are likely to miss.

Many of us, I am sure, have spent time in the field with other photographers only to be surprised afterwards when seeing the images they took that we did not. Sometimes, they are elements we remember but did not consider photographing ourselves, and other times we may not even recall seeing them at all.

In my books and teachings, I describe the importance of awareness. Whether we know it or not, our world is full of 'invisible gorillas,' some with the potential to inspire important and meaningful images. It is beneficial, therefore, not to become preoccupied with things not relating to the experience we wish to express in our work. Awareness means being conscious of as much as possible, and recognising the array of possibilities available to us; the ingredients we can use in our compositions. Given the limitations of our attention, it is critical therefore that, when presented with an interesting scene, we stop and give it our undivided attention. Even such things as casual banter between friends, a desire to keep walking towards a pre-planned destination, or a preconceived composition, are likely to result in missed opportunities.

One of the greatest distractions for landscape photographers is a preconception. Too many times, a photographer will set out to capture a well-known composition, sometimes in a rush to be there for the 'right' light. Like counting basketball passes, this preoccupation likely will blind the photographer to other potentially important and meaningful aspects of the experience.

This image of autumn leaves trapped in a sheet of ice was made in Zion National Park, not too far from several iconic views, right around sunrise. As dozens of photographers lined up in a well-known spot to photograph the predictable morning glow on the red cliffs, I enjoyed a moment of quiet bliss with a couple of friends in this canyon and was rewarded with one of my favourite images to date.

As in Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare, when it comes to awareness of compositions in the landscape, it is the slow and persistent who often win the race.

Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 25 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author


I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

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