Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'Til It Is Experienced

Close to 40 years ago, I went on a bike trek to the Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. (The photograph shows me and three of my four fellow riders standing on a ledge overlooking a dew dipped valley.) I remember chunks of that ride. There was monsoon rain that blasted us for four hours, in the dark, in fast, heavy traffic, where I could barely see the tail light of the bike in front of me. There were tiny towns tucked neatly on the sides of glens, and forests thick with color and texture and life. There was a mile long log jam of cars crossing into Norfolk for a huge concert that we skirted past on the shoulder, only to be stopped by a state trooper who started to write us up, only to have to stop because there was an accident somewhere.

"You're lucky today," he said as he put away his ticket book and quickly climbed into his cruiser, flipping on his lights. "Lady Luck just smiled on all of you."

What he didn't know was Lady Luck had already smiled on me earlier in the day.  A man in a older pickup truck, on a crowded, multi lane highway that bypassed Washington, DC,  had been driving next to me. We were going about 60 mph. The sun was not in our eyes and there were no crosswinds. At one point, I looked over and made direct eye contact with him. I looked directly into his eyes, not five feet away from me.

Suddenly, I sensed movement and glanced to my right. His truck was veering directly toward me.

I hit my horn and lifted my head and shouted, "HEY!" underneath the visor of my helmet.

The man flinched when he heard my shout and pulled back into his lane. He looked like he had seen a ghost.

"Asshole!," I shouted. "Pay attention."

Now, almost 40 years later, after many incidents where I have made eye contact with car and truck drivers, waiting at stop signs, only to have them pull directly in front of me, I believe that something else is at play here. These people are experiencing "inattentional blindness." There is nothing physically wrong with their eyesight. Nor are they deliberately trying to run me down.

The Canadian writer and professor, Robertson Daves, wrote, "The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend."

Two cognitive psychologists, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, performed an experiment in 1999 where they filmed three people in black shirts and three people in white shirts, shifting constantly and passing a basketball around. Participants were challenged to count the number of times the people in white shirts passed the ball to each other.

The result? As the British writer Douglas Adams wrote, "Reality is frequently inaccurate." Over half of the participants, including me when I watched the video, counted 13 times that the ball was bounced between the white shirts. I was proud of my accuracy. I was also astounded when I discovered, along with the 50%, that I did not see a person dressed in a gorilla suit step out in the center of the moving people, pound his chest, and walk off the screen.

I was so focused on the people and shirt color and basketball bouncing that I never saw what was directly in front of me. I was not looking for a gorilla. That man on the multi lane highway was scanning for cars and trucks, large machines with four or more wheels. My two wheeled bike and my direct eye contact never registered, even though he saw me. I was blind to him.

I suspect, however, after that day, when a slim guy suddenly materialized next to him on the DC bypass, he may now be aware of bikes.

John Keats wrote: "Nothing has ever become real 'til it is experienced."

Copyright (c) 2014 by James Hugh Comey

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