Gorillas In Our Midst (Attend to Attention, Part 1)

What gorilla?

I’m going to share a video with you.

I can’t tell you anything about it before you see it. That could ruin it.

Only that it’s about 80 seconds long. And it requires a little participation.

Watch it when you can give it your full attention.

The rest of this email won’t make sense without it.


Ok, now you’ve watched it – you have watched it right? – I imagine you’re either quite surprised or quite chuffed with yourself.

This video is my favorite example of attention in action.

At the outset, the video seems simple enough.

We’re told to watch the players in white and count how many times they pass the ball. Easy enough.

With a clear goal, we’re laser focused. And we succeed!

Even if we don’t get the exact right number, we’re at least in the ball park. (Pun very much intended.)

But most of us, when we do this, miss something quite, well, hairy.

After we’re told about the gorilla, we see it clear as day. We can’t believe we missed it the first time.

This is selective attention in action.

When we’re focused on particular things, we become blind to a lot of other things.

I bet you’ve experienced this in reverse plenty of times.

Ever bought a new car and started seeing the same model of car everywhere you go?

No, they didn’t suddenly balloon in popularity. You’re just paying attention to them for the first time.

Attention is one of the most powerful tools we have for defining our experience of life.

And it holds special power for our learning and Chess improvement.

This is an introductory chapter of a new mini-series I’ll run in the MSN.

I’m calling it “Attend to Attention” or “ATA” for short. I’ll stick ATA in all the subject lines so you can easily track the series down again later.

In this series, I’m going to dive into attention. What it is, what it does in our brains.

How we can manipulate it to drive great results in our Chess training.

And why it’s so important to pay attention to the right things if we want to improve.

Our attention amplifies the information we’re focus on. And it blocks out the things we’re not.

We automatically divert energy to the relevant sections of our brain. Like a spotlight, illuminating all the relevant bits.

What extra cool is that we also block other brainwaves from interfering.

As Stanislas Dehaene says in their book, “How We Learn”:

“The mechanism relies on interfering waves of electrical activity: to suppress a brain area, the brain swamps it with slow waves in the alpha frequency band (between eight and twelve hertz), which inhibit a circuit by preventing it from developing coherent neural activity.”

Basically, we have the electrical equivalent of the Bash Brothers from the Mighty Ducks shoulder checking any other thoughts trying to take the spotlight.

It’s in this state we learn best.

We we point our attention at the right things, we’re golden.

If it’s pointed at the wrong things we become blind to the very things we need to improve.

The way forward, like the gorilla, can escape our notice.

There’s are two main attention traps we need to avoid:

  • not giving our full attention to our Chess when we’re playing and studying
  • paying attention to the wrong things when we’re playing and studying

The first point stops us from getting into a learning state. The second point wastes the learning state.

Both waste our time.

We’ll look at both of them in more depth in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, a question for you to consider:

What are you paying attention to in your Chess right now?

Think it through. Notice what you’re thinking when you’re studying and playing.

What are you paying attention to?

What is it leaving you blind to?

Is it guiding you toward your goals?

Make sure it is.

Extra Note 1:

The Invisible Gorilla Experiment is one of my favorite psychology studies. It highlights some truly fascinating things about how we’re wired as humans.

If you want to learn more about the experiment, you can visit the researchers’ site or pick up the book for yourself.

Extra Note 2:

The Gorilla Experiment also teaches something else. Something that doesn’t fit in the context Chess improvement, but it felt morally important I include it somewhere.

In the original experiment, most of the participants, as expected, didn’t see the gorilla. But it went a little further than that.

Many of the participants thought they were being tricked.

That the researchers had switched the videos on them. First showing them a video without the gorilla, then switching it with a video containing the gorilla.

They were convinced they had taken in the whole video. It had to be a trick.

This wasn’t an isolated issue, it was common in the subjects. You may even have experienced this sense yourself when you went through it.

The gorilla was there the whole time, we just missed it. But we didn’t sense we missed anything at all.

We as humans do not have the ability to tell when our attention is affected in this way.

We will often continue to believe we saw “the whole picture” when, objectively, we didn’t.

Sadly, this phenomenon is causing a lot of injuries and deaths right now.

It’s the phenomenon that makes texting-while-driving such a difficult issue to stop.

Studies have shown that we pretty much go blind when we’re texting and driving.

The road, other cars, pedestrians- they all become like the gorilla.

As humans, we can’t tell our attention has wavered. We think we see the whole picture. So it’s fine to check our phone for a few seconds, right?

We’re confident we remain aware the whole time.

The studies show we’re effectively blind. But we don’t know it. We don’t feel it.

And because they don’t feel it, people keep doing it.

This might not be relevant information for you, but maybe for someone you know, or someone they know.

It’s helped me understand why people continue to text while driving. Why seemingly every driver on the road keeps flicking their eyes downward.

They all think they see just fine.

If this section somehow helps one person avoid one accident one time, I’ll be glad I wrote it.

Stay safe out there, y’all.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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