Do you see what I see?

The Illusion of Attention

Seeing Red

Last week, we explored how expectations can get in the way of seeing clearly and practiced choiceless awareness. Expectations are generally based on previous experiences, knowledge, and the opinions formed from them. 

Take a look at this cool awareness test before continuing.

Did you see the gorilla? In his book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli talks about this particular experiment in awareness as being one of the most famous in psychology. This is called the illusion of attention or inattentional blindness.

“We are confident that we notice everything that takes place in front of us. But in reality we often see only what we are focusing on. Unexpected, unnoticed interruptions can be as large and conspicuous as a gorilla.” ~ Rolf Dobelli

According to Alexandra Horowitz, author of the fascinating book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, we overlook certain things either because we aren’t knowledgeable enough to see what’s really there or we haven’t decided to place our attention in a certain direction. Those two things are the subjects for our practice this week - discovering our inattentional blindness, otherwise known as missing the elephant in the room, and intentionally looking for certain things, called search images. 

The Illusion of Attention

Here’s an example of my own inattentional blindness. One day, I was looking for a sweet treat that was supposed to be in the refrigerator. I scoured that fridge at least four times and couldn’t find it. When my husband came home, I asked him where it was, with a slightly accusatory air. He opened the refrigerator door and pulled it out immediately. He had put it in a tupperware container, which was not what I was expecting.

When we have preconceived ideas about what we’ll find, we tend to miss details that don’t match these ideas. Our expectations prevent us from seeing reality. Dobelli says that we don’t always miss extraordinary events but don’t kid yourself that you’re seeing everything of importance. We’re always missing something. This is exciting to me since it means there’s always something new to see, learn, discover.

Expect the unexpected! 

On Looking for Search Images

Horowitz shares in her book the walks she took with “experts” in different fields who show her what they see – a geologist, a typographer, an illustrator, a naturalist, a wildlife scientist, an urban sociologist, a doctor, a blind person, a sound designer, and even her 18 month old son and her dog. Each brings specialized knowledge and their own unique way of looking at their surroundings. For example, an expert in architecture sees building details that the average person would not. 

In the animal world, search images help animals find their prey and prevent capture. For example, camouflaged moths blend in extremely well with the speckled bark upon which they alight. But, blue jays become very good at finding even the most well-concealed moths. Some animals have olfactory search images; they smell their prey.

When we intentionally start looking for something – through a search image –  we suddenly start seeing it everywhere. It’s not that it wasn’t there before. We just weren’t looking for it. 


Where are you inattentionally blind right now? Be a sleuth and discover something this week that’s been hiding in plain sight.

Pick a search image each day and note how much more you see when you set an intention. It could be a particular colour, a sound, a type of car or tree, or maybe a shape. It could be a smell or a texture. Or, choose one of Horowitz’s suggestions below. So many possibilities.

* Insects and Animals – nests, lairs, and other animal homes. Turn over rocks or poke through straw or grasses looking for insects.

* People – sit in a public space and watch what people do, how they’re dressed, how they walk.

* Signs and Lettering – notice typography, color, placement, grammar, etc.

* Rocks and Stone – hold the history of a place. How many different types and sizes can you find?

* Buildings – look at building materials, architectural elements, how they intersect with nature. Photograph reflections in glass.

* Public Spaces – look at size, design, what they are made of. How do people use the space?

I would love to know if these exercises help you to see something important and unexpected.