Focused brains are deaf, blind to monkey business

My wife called me at school the other day with some frightening news. Our oldest daughter was in the emergency room with an allergic reaction. Angry itchy hives were spreading rapidly and she was struggling to breath. The hospital is only a few blocks from school, so I threw on my coat.

I’m known in my family as the worrier—especially when my kids get sick. I don’t like to think of it like this. I like to think that I’m the one who efficiently gathers information, analyses situations, and develops solutions. Still, I’ll admit, when I hear one of my kids is having trouble breathing, things get a little intense for me.

When I got there, she didn’t look good. Her whole face was red and swollen—angry bumps welled up around her eyes, neck and ears. She was obviously uncomfortable, struggling not to scratch. Her lips looked a little blue, and she had a cough she hadn’t had earlier. Wires connected her to a monitor that tracked her vital signs: a green line blipped across the screen.

I started asking questions. About her breathing: it was stabilizing; about her skin: initial attempts to calm the hives didn’t work, so they had just given her a shot of epinephrine and were expecting to get it under control in a few minutes.

I watched her watery eyes, assessing her level of fear and discomfort. I watched her chest rise and fall to assess her breathing. Then I looked at the other expressions in the room. Lisa’s was calm, but concerned. It told me that the worst was probably over. The nurse, in an obvious attempt to calm a worried father, was all smiles. But was she overdoing it? My younger daughter, who had seen the whole thing develop had an alert wait-and-see expression.

It was then that I noticed that Lisa was talking to me—something about dinner tonight, and a backpack, and homework. It took every ounce of my energy to shift my attention to what my wife was saying. Though she was the only one in the room talking, and they were the most simple of instructions, I had to ask her to repeat them. I’d missed them completely. I had literally not heard her.

The point I’m trying to make here is that during moments of intense focus, we often become blind and deaf–completely missing information that would otherwise be obvious. No experiment illustrates this phenomenon better than “The Monkey Business Illusion.” Spoiler Alert: Watch the video before reading further for the full affect.

The video shows a now famous experiment conducted by Daniel Simons in which you are asked to pay very close attention to the number of times a basketball is passed between moving members of one team while another team weaves and passes another ball within the same space. Tracking and counting the passes of one ball and one team, while ignoring the other, is tough.

So tough in fact, that 50% of viewers completely miss the guy in the gorilla suit who walks on screen, stops in the middle of the players, beats his chest, and then walks off. I am not making this up. If you haven’t seen the video yet, it’s ruined for you now, but do your own experiment and show your friends and family. You’ll be amazed.

But is it really that strange? When you’re in a car with someone as they pass a truck on a narrow road, don’t you stop talking? Sure, you know that distracting the driver might be dangerous, but there’s a part of you that also knows that the driver is probably deaf to you then anyway.

So what does this have to do with teaching and learning? Everyone has a limited capacity of attention. Intense focus on a task can quite literally make people blind and deaf to other stimuli. Good teachers understand this and allow for uninterrupted periods of focus and limit the number of tasks assigned at one time. Good learners understand that multitasking is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and they manage and prioritize work, making conscious, efficient decisions about which tasks to tackle and when.

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