What Gorilla? Why Some Can’t See Psychic Phenomena
July 21, 2013 By davidjones
By DEAN RADIN
Imagine you’re watching a basketball game. Your favourite team is wearing white and the other team is in black. In the midst of the action, someone in a dark gorilla suit calmly walks to the centre of the court, waves to the crowd, then walks off the court. Do you think you would notice this peculiar event? Most people might say yes. Most people would be wrong.
Our perceptual system unconsciously filters out the vast majority of information available to us. Because of this filtering process, we actually experience only a tiny trickle of information, by some estimates a trillionth of what is actually out there. And yet from that trickle our minds construct what we expect to see. So when we pay attention to our favourite white-shirted basketball team, the likelihood of clearly seeing darker objects moving about is substantially reduced. That includes even obvious objects, like gorillas. Psychologists call this phenomenon “inattentional blindness,” and it’s just one of many ways in which our prior beliefs, interests and expectations shape the way we perceive the world and cause us to overlook the obvious.
Because of these blind spots, some common aspects of human experience literally cannot be seen by those who’ve spent decades embedded within the Western scientific worldview. That worldview, like any set of cultural beliefs inculcated from childhood, acts like the blinders they put on skittish horses to keep them calm. Between the blinders we see with exceptional clarity, but seeing beyond the blinders is not only exceedingly difficult, after a while it’s easy to forget that your vision is restricted.
An important class of human experience that these blinders exclude is psychic phenomena, those commonly reported spooky experiences, such as telepathy and clairvoyance, that suggest we are deeply interconnected in ways that transcend the ordinary senses and our everyday notions of space and time.
Exclusion of these phenomena creates a Catch 22: Human experiences credibly reported throughout history, across all cultures, and at all educational levels, repeatedly tell us that psychic phenomena exist. But Big Science – especially as portrayed in prominent newspapers and popular magazines like Scientific American – says it doesn’t.
Well then, is this gorilla in the basketball game, or not? One way to find out is to study the question using the highly effective tools of science while leaving the worldview assumptions behind. That way we can study the question without prejudice, like watching a basketball game without preferring either the white or black team. Neutral observers are much more likely to spot a gorilla, if one is indeed present.
This form of investigation has been going on for over a century, and despite official denials, the jury is in: Some psychic phenomena do exist. But like blindingly obvious gorillas, not everyone can see them. (Actually, like the majority of the general public, many scientists do have these experiences, but as in the parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, fledgling science students quickly learn in college that it is not politically expedient to talk about it.)
Here’s an example of not seeing. In the July/August 2008 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (the Playboy of the enthusiastic debunker), neuroscientist Amir Raz and psychologist Ray Hyman describe their impressions of an invitation-only scientific meeting held on “anomalous cognition” at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in July 2007. Anomalous cognition is a neutral euphemism for psychic or “psi” phenomena, one that avoids the connotation of séances and ghostbusting associated with the touchy p-words. I was a co-organiser of the UBC meeting. Sixty prominent scientists and physicians were invited to the meeting, including a couple of Nobel Laureates, representing a variety of disciplines and perspectives.
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