In the 1990s, American psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted a very simple and now famous experiment which, on the face of it, sounds more like comedy sketch than a piece of serious scientific research.
Observers were asked to watch a short video of two teams—one dressed in white, the other in black—passing a ball to one another and to count the number of passes between the players dressed in white. In the middle of this scene entered a boy in a gorilla costume, making body gestures.
Incredibly, more than half the observers did not see the gorilla, a striking demonstration of a psychological phenomenon known as inattentional blindness, where an individual fails to perceive an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight.
This quirk of the human mind could be preventing scientists from finding signals from extraterrestrial life (if it exists), according to neuropsychologists Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel Garcia from the University of Cádiz in Spain.
These signals may manifest themselves in ways that humans are simply not looking for, the authors suggest in a new study published in the journal Acta Astronautica.
“When we think of other intelligent beings, we tend to see them from our perceptive and conscience sieve; however, we are limited by our sui generis vision of the world, and it’s hard for us to admit it,” de la Torre told the Spanish Information and Scientific News Service.
“We are trying to contemplate other possibilities, for example, beings of dimensions that our mind cannot grasp; or intelligences based on dark matter or energy forms, which make up almost 95% of the universe and which we are only beginning to glimpse,” he said. “There is even the possibility that other universes exist, as the texts of Stephen Hawking and other scientists indicate.”
In their research, the authors suggest that our own psychology has a big role to play in the search for what they call “non-terrestrials”—a term used to avoid the Hollywood connotations of the words “aliens” and “extraterrestrials.”
For their study, 137 people were asked to distinguish aerial photos that contained artificial structures, such as buildings and roads, from ones with natural elements, like mountains and rivers. In a nod to Chabris and Simons’ experiment, a tiny gorilla figure was inserted into one of the images to see if the participants noticed.
They found that their results were similar to the original ’90s experiment, with many participants failing to notice the gorilla figure in the image.
Because our conception of space is limited by our brain, the signs of alien life may be right in front of us, but we still may not be able to see or identify it, according to de la Torre, an example of what he calls the “cosmic gorilla effect”.
In the same paper, the researchers also proposed a new way of classifying intelligent civilizations using five factors: biology, longevity, psychosocial aspects, technological progress and distribution in space. They argue that existing classifications are too simplistic and tend to focus mainly on how much energy a civilization can harness.
“The fact that we use radio signals does not necessarily mean that other civilizations also use them, or that the use of energy resources and their dependence are the same as we have,” de la Torre said.
A Type 1 civilization, in the new categorization, would be similar to ours in the sense that we may perish if we mishandle technology or planetary resources. If we survive in the long-term though, we could progress to a Type 2 civilization, which would have control over quantum and gravitational energy, space-time and the ability to explore entire galaxies. Finally, a Type 3 civilization would be made up of exotic, immortal beings with the power to traverse multiple dimensions and manipulate dark energy and matter.
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