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Monday, 13 September 2010

The Invisible Gorilla and the Jewish Question

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris were two Harvard psychologists who in 1999 devised a very simple experiment. They asked students to watch a video of 6 students , three dressed in black, three dressed in white, passing a basketball to each other. The task was simply to count the number of times the players in white passed the ball. So not too complicated (even George Bush could have done this) – how many times was the ball passed by players dressed in white?

During the video a person in a full-body gorilla suit walked into the centre of the frame, pounded their chest and then walked off. They showed this video first in the US, then to people all round the world. The results were uniform. Fully half the people who took the test, in every country, when asked details about the video did not notice the person in the gorilla suit. Many of those, when shown the video again, protested that the video must have been rigged, doctored, faked, this second time. People who had seen the gorilla first-time round were incredulous – how could so many viewers miss something so obvious?

We of course fondly imagine that we would have been in that 50% who would have seen what was in front of our eyes. But Simons and Chabris – in their now famous ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment – had stumbled upon a basic lapse in human attentiveness. They called it ‘inattention blindness’ – the failure to see something obvious, in front of our eyes, when we have our minds elsewhere. (You can see this experiment on YouTube if you are interested – though you will, naturally, see the gorilla because you have been told it is there).

In their new book ‘The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us’ the authors describe a whole range of experiments to illustrate what they call our ‘illusion of attention’ – that is that we are often unaware of the limitations of what we perceive, not just visually (through our eyes) but in relation to memory, knowledge and perception. We think we see and experience the world as it is – but we are often distorting it, misapprehending it, or in various ways misinterpreting it. That we are subject to powerful illusions about how our mind works isn’t about stupidity, or arrogance – it is about something in us that is so immersed in our own subjective worlds, our own personal way of seeing and thinking, that we often just can’t look reality in the eye. And once we have an idea lodged in us it becomes very difficult to shift it.

They have interesting things to say about a range of issues like the MMR vaccine scare and hedge-fund meltdowns, where many of those involved were unable (not just unwilling) to change their way of thinking once they had decided how they viewed the situation. Although the authors don’t mention this, I think that climate change sceptics may fall into this category, although in relation to the environment a better guide to denial may be the poet T.S. Eliot’s words from Four Quartets: ‘human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality’.

I think that the ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment gives us plenty to think about. It can teach us the value of being more modest, more humble, less sure of the rightness of our thinking, more open to doubts about what we think we definitely know, perhaps more able to tolerate uncertainty. Perhaps it can point us towards appreciating the provisional rather than the definitive, the ‘maybe’ and the ‘perhaps’ of life rather than the ‘definitely’ and the ‘undoubtedly’. And the relevance of all this to our Jewish New Year should be obvious, for questions about attention and attentiveness takes us close to heart of what the High Holy Days are all about.

‘Give us courage to be honest with ourselves’ our liturgy says (p.131, Reform machzor) – and that simple statement encapsulates the major religious theme of these 10 days : honesty with our selves. And it is the most difficult work of our lives because ‘inattention blindness’ isn’t just a physical phenomenon it is also a psychological and spiritual one.

The call to be attentive, to pay attention to what is real and not illusory is, after all, at the heart of Judaism – and not just during these Ten Days. This is what the Shema is all about: Shema Yisrael, 'Hear, Israel' ... ‘Shema’ does mean ‘Hear’ but in the sense of ‘Pay attention’, ‘Pay very close attention’... And what are we to pay attention to? ‘Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad’ - ‘divinity permeates all of being, and everything is connected to everything else’ (I’m translating loosely - but trying to tease out the inner core of this verse, this belief, this affirmation of Jewish purpose).

Morning and evening, day in day out, we are called to be attentive to what is really happening – in us, to us, between us, around us - and not retreat into lives of illusion and delusion. And it is a very demanding call, this call to hear and listen and respond to what is happening within us and in front of us: the injustices that need addressing, the people who need helping, the support that needs to be offered, to our children, our parents, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, and the strangers in our midst, who are everywhere, in every land. The world could die through lack of compassion, through lack of sustained attentiveness to what is real and what is really happening.

And I think that this question of paying attention to what is in front of us is getting more and more difficult. Because something is changing in our consciousness as we become more and more dependent upon and embedded within this huge world wide web of inter-related technology and electronic networking that has grown up around us, and between us, over this last decade. What does paying attention really mean now when at the same moment you can be online ordering tickets, and checking your email, and Facebooking, and talking on the phone, while also maybe watching some TV or listening to music?

How do you pay attention in a sustained way In the midst of this transformation in what is possible? What are you paying attention to? Although I’m a bit of a techno-phobe, and somewhat resistant temperamentally to this fragmentation of attentiveness, I am fascinated by what is happening. And yet at the same time I’m sometimes rather scared at the implications of this ‘continuous partial attention’ [cf S.Craig Watkins: The Young and the Digital: what the Migration to social Network Sites, Games and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means For Our Future] which is required if we buy in, literally and metaphorically, to this world. We might joke that ‘continuous partial attention’ is just multi-tasking, and that’s what the world demands now, and women might smile wryly and say, well you are just describing what it’s like to be an ordinary mother – who has to pay attention to the children, and write her reports and cook supper all at the same time... ‘and it didn’t do me any harm’. Well, maybe, maybe not.

Perhaps this latest technology-driven manifestation of ‘continuous partial attention’ is nothing very new and my concerns about what it is doing to the quality of our lives and our human capacities for attention, concern and empathy are misplaced. I may be wrong about what it is doing to our psyches and indeed the very structure of our brains (there’s growing evidence for these changes in our neural wiring) – I may be wrong about what is happening but I do know that it is addictive, it is the drug of choice of millions who wouldn’t touch cocaine. They don’t call Blackberrys ‘Crackberrys’ for no reason.

There is a drive, powerful and increasingly irresistible, to be always ‘on’, anywhere, anytime, any place – like the old Bacardi ad, but for real: go online, stay connected, sense that constant unfolding newness, the potential to be filled with new news. We can’t miss anything - and everything must have our so-called attention: so we skim and surf, and search, and become twitchier, and more pressurised and irritable, yet also more distracted, less able to concentrate for very long on anything (like a sermon of more than 10 minutes, or a blog that keeps on going), and less able to listen – really listen – to another person. Which is actually part of the essence of being human.

We are more focused on the present moment because more involved in what is happening now – but, paradoxically, less connected to each other in deep and satisfying ways. It is a thrill to be able to be in touch with the world in all its wondrous density and complexity – but does it lead us into ways of honesty and charity, does it support us in our weakness and fragility, does it hold us in our fears of illness and loss, does it protect us from despair and anxiety?

This Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twittering online world is not going to go away very soon and of course there are many benign aspects of this inter-connectedness – but it is infiltrating our consciousness in ways we can’t see, and that I suspect are not benign for our fundamental well-being. (So for those who attend synagogue services, for example, it’s probably harder to sit there for extended periods where there are few distractions and no hyperlinks).

But what Jews have over these Ten Days is an opportunity for a different way of seeing, a different way of connecting: it’s a call to slow down from our somewhat manic lives, and to start to pay attention again to what really matters – what used to be called ‘the soul’, some essence of us that needs time and space, that needs to be nurtured, that needs attention, real devoted, devotional, attention.

These thoughts have been based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue as the New Year began. It wasn’t a sermon on the ‘elephant and the Jewish question’ (as the old joke has it), but ‘the invisible gorilla and the Jewish question’. And it puts me in mind of the 19th century Hasidic story about the disciple who approached his Rebbe and asked, "Rebbe, every time I turn around, I hear about new, modern devices in the world. So, nu, tell me, are they good for us or bad for us?"

"What kind of devices?" asked the Rebbe.

"Well, there's the telegraph, there's the telephone, and there's the locomotive."

The Rebbe stroked his beard for a while, then replied, "All of them can be good - if we learn the right lessons from them. From the telegraph, we can learn to measure our words: if used carelessly, we will have to pay dearly. From the telephone, we can learn that whatever you say here is heard there. From the locomotive, we learn that every second counts - and if we don’t use each one wisely, we may not reach our destination in life.”

And from the internet we learn what the mystics of old already knew: that Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad – that everything is connected to everything else, that we have the divine within us and that we are held within God's own Going-On-Being, so to speak.


Some people asked me later about the 'elephant joke'. Here it is: Four doctoral students — a German, a Frenchman, a Russian and a Jew — took a seminar requiring a paper about elephants. The German wrote about authority in elephant society. The Frenchman wrote about the love life of the elephant. The Russian wrote about sharing among elephants. And the Jew, naturally, wrote about the elephant and the Jewish question.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Howard,
    I caught the second half of your sermon when I tuned in online from the US, before leaving to go and lead my own RH services! Thanks for posting so I could see what I missed in part 1! Picked this up on CNN and thought you'd like it, vis a vis the theme of technology addiction that you spoke about:
    Shanah Tovah & g'mar tov,
    Rachel Gurevitz