You Missed the Gorilla? It Might Be Your Working Memory Capacity

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Researchers have recently discovered why it is that some individuals experience “inattention blindness” – the phenomenon that results in some drivers who are on their cell phones being more prone to accidents, and the same phenomenon that makes the gorilla of the famous video invisible to some viewers and not to others. The answer is that those people who fail to see certain things that are presented right in front of them, as a result of focusing on something else, have what is known as lower “working memory capacity.”

Working memory capacity refers to a specific measure of one’s ability to focus their attention when and where it needs to be focused; and more specifically, the lower the capacity, the more inability to focus on more than one thing at a time.

The ‘Invisible’ Gorilla Plays Ball

Jason Watson, a University of Utah psychologist, has learned why it is that some people do not see the gorilla in the famous video cycling the web once again. The video itself shows a group of people passing a basketball back and forth while a man in a gorilla suit walks through their “game”. Unsuspecting viewers were asked how many times they counted the ball being passed back and forth. When asked about the gorilla passing across the screen, 40 percent failed to see the ‘invisible’ gorilla.

Watson and his team conducted research that expanded on earlier findings by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris – authors of the 2010 book ‘The Invisible Gorilla’ – where they found that a better working memory capacity explains how 58 percent of viewers saw the gorilla even though they were focusing on another task – counting the basketball passes.

The study uncovered truths about why people are different in how they focus their attention, which revealed why some are able to see something that they are not expecting and others not – for the purpose of this study, a gorilla walking across the screen. The overall findings of Watson’s study explain why some individuals are able to better focus their attention than others.

Why Does Working Memory Capacity Matter?

So, what is the relevance of this study, you might be wondering. The best way to understand is to consider operating a motor vehicle under hazardous road conditions. When the conditions on the road are bad, many unexpected things can happen. For this reason, it makes sense that an individual who had better control over their attention would be more likely to notice such unexpected or unforeseen hazards, without having to be told to be on the lookout.

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The Science

Watson explains it in this way: “The potential implications are that if we are all paying attention as we are driving, some individuals may have enough extra flexibility in their attention to notice distractions that could cause accidents. That doesn’t mean people ought to be self-distracting by talking on a cell phone while driving – even if they have better control over their attention. Our prior research has shown that very few individuals (only 2.5 percent) are capable of handling driving and talking on a cell phone without impairment.”

The purpose of the study was to explain why some people noticed the gorilla and others didn’t, or why some people are better at focusing their attention on what they are supposed to do than others – like in the instance of driving a car. Watson says, “People who notice the gorilla are better able to focus their attention. They have flexible focus in some sense.”

University of Utah. (2011, April 18). Missing the gorilla: People prone to ‘inattention blindness’ have a lower working memory capacity. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110418083249.htm

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