Have you seen the video above? Count how many times the players in white pass the basketball. Watch the video all the way through. What number did you get? And did you see the gorilla? When researchers in the 1990s first showed this video, as part of a test of human beings’ inattentional blindness, more than half the participants did not notice the gorilla. In a way that’s similar, a new study from neuropsychologists suggests that our human culture may not have detected extraterrestrial signals because, according to the study’s first author Gabriel de la Torre of the University of Cádiz, when we think of other intelligent beings, we tend to see them through our unique human perceptions and consciousness:
… We are limited by our sui generis vision of the world, and it’s hard for us to admit it. What we are trying to do … is to contemplate other possibilities, for example, beings of dimensions that our mind cannot grasp; or intelligences based on dark matter or energy forms, which make up almost 95% of the universe and which we are only beginning to glimpse. There is even the possibility that other universes exist, as the texts of Stephen Hawking and other scientists indicate.
De la Torre and co-author Manuel García, also of the University of Cádiz, have an article related to this subject coming out in May 2018 in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Astronautica (view article online).
The authors – who say they prefer to avoid the terms extraterrestrial or alien and instead use the more generic term non-terrestrial – state that our own neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness can play an important role in the search for non-terrestrial civilizations. In relation to this, they conducted an experiment with 137 people, who had to distinguish aerial photographs with artificial structures (buildings, roads …) from others with natural elements (mountains, rivers …).
In one of the images, shown below, a tiny character disguised as a gorilla was inserted to see if the participants noticed.
The result was similar to those in the 1990s gorillia-video study, described at the top of this post. In other words, many did not notice the guy in the gorilla costume. But De La Torre’s study found a difference in perception of the gorilla between people with different cognitive styles. De La Torre said:
…we assessed the participants with a series of questions to determine their cognitive style (if they were more intuitive or rational), and it turned out that the intuitive individuals identified the gorilla of our photo more times than those more rational and methodical.
If we transfer this to the problem of searching for other non-terrestrial intelligences, the question arises about whether our current strategy may result in us not perceiving the gorilla. Our traditional conception of space is limited by our brain, and we may have the signs above and be unable to see them. Maybe we’re not looking in the right direction.
The authors’ paper also mentioned another example, drawn from Dawn spacecraft images of the dwarf planet Ceres, which is famous for its bright spots. Within the Ceres crater Occator, there appears an apparently geometric figure. De La Torre said:
Our structured mind tells us that this structure looks like a triangle with a square inside, something that theoretically is not possible in Ceres, but maybe we are seeing things where there are none, what in psychology is called pareidolia.
However, De La Torre said, there is another possibility:
The opposite could also be true. We can have the signal in front of us and not perceive it or be unable to identify it. If this happened, it would be an example of the cosmic gorilla effect. In fact, it could have happened in the past or it could be happening right now.
Bottom line: A new study from neuropsychologists suggests that our human culture may not have detected extraterrestrial signals because, when we think of other intelligent beings, we tend to see them through the filter of our own human perceptions and consciousness. There could be a range of possibilities that we’re not considering.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.