Outside of Your Perceptual Awareness

The other day I was sitting in the park, talking to a friend of mine. It is a fairly large park, and there is both a large concrete area, for skateboards, and break dancers to practice, as well as a large grassy area, for little kids to run around and chase Frisbees without worrying about what happens when they fall over. The grass is very soft. And although they have several signs advising folks not to feed the birds, there are always a few people tearing apart pieces of bread for them.

As I was talking to this guy, a flash caught my attention. It’s funny how that works. You’ll be talking to somebody, or watching something, and your attention is pointed her, and then something happens just outside of your conscious awareness but not so much outside of it that you can’t at least notice some kind of activity going on off to the side. It’s like your brain is monitoring what is going on all around you, in case somebody drops a suitcase full of money, or a hungry tiger suddenly materializes. That way you can put a bookmark in your conversation and come back later after you’ve picked up the money and escaped the tiger.

I remember seeing a study done once on human perception and memory. It was done at a University. During a lecture, one with one of those big lecture halls you see on TV, a professor was giving a lecture. The professor was in on the experiment, and all of his students were test subjects. Off to the side was the professor’s briefcase. On the other side of the brief case, was the front entrance. Because the lecture hall was very large, it had two entrances, one in the front, and one in the rear. During the experiment, both doors were closed.

Right in the middle of the lecture, somebody burst in the room, ran across the front of the classroom, grabbed the professor’s briefcase, and ran out. When this happened, most the students were facing forward, so they wouldn’t even have to turn their necks to see the thief (who was also part of the experiment.)

What happened next is very interesting, and has been a known fact within police forces for many years. All of the students were told it was an experiment shortly after the incident, and given a detailed questionnaire regarding the appearance of the “thief.” Most all of them got his description completely wrong. Some even chose the incorrect ethnicity of the thief. Others didn’t remember the right colors of his clothes; some imagined he was wearing a hoody (perhaps as to explain to themselves why they couldn’t remember his face,) and many other things.

One thing a police detective will tell you is that if all they have is eyewitness testimony, they don’t have much, and it is incredibly difficult to get a conviction, let alone a warrant for the arrest if that is all they have to go on. For the police, physical evidence is key. Without physical evidence linking the suspect to the crime, they usually don’t even bother.

One reason I’ve heard for this is that memory is something that you have to “pre-frame,” meaning that you have to consciously choose before you see something that you want to remember it. If you see something that you weren’t expecting, you aren’t likely to remember it. This is perhaps due to an aspect of evolution. The brain isn’t really set up to remember stuff unless it is important to us. And the only things that are important to us automatically are food, predators, and sex. Of course in modern society, food, or resources, is in the form on money, and predators is in the form of anything that we deem a threat to our safety. And of course sex, is and will always be, sex.

Perhaps because the students didn’t recognize any of these three in the experimental thief, their brains didn’t deem it important enough to remember. Had it been their own briefcase that was stolen, they would have likely remembered it. Especially if the briefcase had been filled with money and phone numbers that would likely lead to easy sex. Then you can be sure that they would have remembered every detail about the thief.

So after I turned my attention to the flash I saw in the park, I noticed it was a street performer, doing a juggling act, and he had thrown something up in the air. When it (whatever it was) had reached its apex, it exploded into three balls that came crashing falling down, which he of course caught and started to juggle. I suppose that is a great way to get attention if you are juggler. It certainly got mine, as me and my friend actually stood up to go over and watch him juggle, as so many others did in the park, most of whom gave him a sizable tip in his juggler hat after he’d finished.