On not seeing what is right before your eyes

When Jenny Lloyd published  The Man of Reason, in 1984, she encapsulated a picture of reason well loved by many philosophers.  This is the highly rational and effectively disembodied reason.  That picture has been under fairly constant for about 3 decades; one of the most recent attacks will be released on May 18.  It’s The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris. 

It has a web page now and on it one can find links to videos.  So I’m going to put up a couple of videos, but first a party political broadcast.  There seem to me to be two important issues  for  feminist philosophers to consider:

1.  Given the current deconstruction of philosophy’s ideal of reason,  what continues to serve and support feminist aims, and what doesn’t?   One thing we might  notice is that the project includes examining the biases that we do not and sometimes cannot be aware of.  One startling thing vision research is uncovering is that valences (such as rewards and punishment) can affect our basic visual experience.

2.   When the deconstruction takes down with it an important facet  of our culture, should feminists work on a reconstruction of it?  Presumably this answer could vary with the facet.   For example, lots in our cognition excels at getting the gist of things, and is not very good at getting and retaining the precise details.  Contrary to what many believe, vision and memory are good at gists, and not so good  at  details.  We might celebrate a realization that eye witness testimony is often faulty, but how about the narratives of a life, including those of abused children?

I know of Sue Campbell’s stellar work on memory, but not  a great deal more.  So suggestions are really welcome.

Now, for some videos:  The first is a version of the very famous experiment about what we may not notice.  The second is of an experiment about which  it was thought by many that women would do better than men.  They didn’t, according to Dan (he was in my home town recently and so I had a chance to chat  a bit).  The third is from a different experimenters and just illustrates how little we may notice.

If you are wondering why this sensory stuff is being said to be an attack on disembodied reason, it’s because attention has been thought of as a mental action or process and not subject to the quirks of our bodies.

8 thoughts on “On not seeing what is right before your eyes

  1. pts: I think about 70% of viewers don’t see it the first time. We don’t know exactly why some do.

  2. didn’t see the gorilla at all. had a vague sense that the scene became messy for a moment, tho.

    funnily, there was a gorilla in my neighbourhood recently, and i didn’t see it. a man in his car beeped his horn at me repeatedly until i finally stopped to look at him, whereupon he wildly gestured in the direction of the gorilla for ages until i finally looked the way he was gesturing – and i think i *still* didn’t see the gorilla at first. recounting this scene, i suddenly (a) think this must’ve been psychology students, and (b) am rather worried about myself crossing the street, etc, unaccompanied.

  3. no no, the halloween kind. not the zoo kind. that must’ve been psych students, right? it must’ve been. even if there were a random person in a gorilla costume, why would another random person put so much energy into getting a total stranger to see it?

  4. I noticed the gorilla, but only when it was just about to leave. It gave me a bit of a shock! As did the face that I didn’t notie any of the colour changes, but thought that the girl might have been completely different!

    Interesting stuff, but could why is it particulalry relevant to feminism? Any answers for the questions posed at the beginning of the article?

  5. There are many places in popular culture right now -including this website where I find many useful things to share with my students, thanks very much! – where we hear about psychological research that shows that there are many parts of our experience that are below everyday consciousness. At the same time, there is a great deal of work in feminism about how systems of oppression are maintained that points out how emotional responses, such as the distaste or even hatred that accompanies a prejudice, are cultivated by dominant culture. People who do not think of themselves as prejudiced can exhibit what looks like instinctive discriminatory attitudes which they will deny having on a conscious level. Thus far, this research seems to support some conclusions in philosophical feminism. What disturbs me is the conclusion often drawn from this research – that if we are customarily unaware of features in our environment and in ourselves, that these must be 1)biologically based, 2) a product of evolution and 3) therefore impossible to alter. For example, men attend to women’s breasts and not their brains (and may be unaware of and deny doing this), this piece of attention is biological and evolutionary, and so we should give up trying to change it. I know that what I am saying does not necessarily follow from the gorilla research, and since the book isn’t out yet I don’t know what conclusions the authors draw. I just wanted to point up one form the slippery slope often seems to take.

  6. I saw the gorilla – but I wasn’t really that focused on counting the number of passes. I didn’t read the text before playing the video, so was actually trying to figure out what would be the ‘trick’ – so I was concentrating more on trying to take in the whole scene (I was actually trying to work out whether the other team technically had white shoes on, etc. when the gorilla walked in). With the cards, I only registered that the background was different, but couldn’t remember what colour it had been and – if it had not been the final of three videos about what you don’t notice – probably wouldn’t have noticed at all.

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