Anyone who has sat through an Intro to Psychology course has probably seen the infamous “invisible gorilla” video. You know, the video where you are so busy counting basketball passes between a handful of people in white shirts that you completely miss the gorilla walking through the scene? Last fall I had the pleasure of being a teaching assistant for the undergraduate Cognitive Neuroscience course with Pascal Wallisch. Along with undergraduate students in the class, we put together a modified “Invisible Gorilla” video illustrating what is really going on with selective attention.

from Pascal:

Attention is fragile – an organism does not know whether it should be putting its attention on a given task – counting the number of passes, in this case – or whether it should be on the lookout for possible threats from the environment. Peripheral vision is most sensitive to motion, as potential threats are usually moving relative to the environment. If we do see something in our peripheral vision that is moving differently enough, our attention switches to this movement. This is why, in the classical “selective attention test”, you can count the number of passes. You retain your endogenous attention, or the attention devoted to the task you are choosing to focus on – counting passes. The gorilla does not move fast enough to be recognized as such and it is also not white, so it would also be disregarded by feature based attention.

To summarize, this dynamic allocation of attention might be the best a system with limited resources can do, given an uncertain world. Mistakes will be made if unexpected threats are missed because they are not moving fast enough to capture attention, but it still might be optimal.

Attention is uncertainty management.
Because life is uncertainty management.
And it is fairly successful, which is why you are still here, being able to watch this video.

-Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D.