I was at a seminar recently which for some reason digressed into demonstrating how we can be so focused on a particular task that we fail to observe what is going on around us. The presenter gave a few demonstrations that we found interesting but unconvincing, then he proved it to us with a group experiment. The object was to watch a short film of students passing basketballs among themselves and count the number of passes, but only betweeen those students in white T-shirts, not those wearing black. OK, we watched closely for about 30 seconds and I counted 12, some said 16 or 17.
He asked, "Did anybody see the gorilla?" What gorilla? Most of us didn't know what he was talking about. So he showed the fim again and, to my amazement, somebody in gorilla costume walked into the middle of the scene, paused, waved at us, pounded his chest, and walked on. Wow. (It wasn't a different film because some people had seen the gorilla the first time.) I always knew I was able to concentrate and ignore the background noise, but this surprised me.
I was reminded of the story by this morning's newspaper article about Barbara Ann Scott who is celebrating the Sixtieth anniversary of her Olympic gold medal in figure skating at St. Moritz in 1948. (The first and still the only Canadian woman to do so.) Apparently in her early routine on the outdoor rink, a helicopter flew over and hovered to watch her perform. When asked if it bothered her, she said, "What helicopter?"
Being able to focus is obviously important to performing a task at our best, but occasionally we need to look up and be aware of our surroundings. Maybe the gorilla is not friendly, or the helicopter is crash landing.