In his bestseller "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell famously argued that rapid cognition -- the kind of quick thinking we experience in the initial seconds of making a decision -- can lead us to success. To Gladwell, fast impressions triumph over analysis.
"The Invisible Gorilla" offers an alternative take on human thinking. Its authors, experimental psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, believe that we all routinely fall victim to illusions that impair our ability to quickly judge our world. Telling the stories of experiments that examine the limits of our thinking and giving real-world examples of brains tricking their owners, Chabris and Simons deliver a persuasive warning that intuition often fails us.
Imagine you're watching a movie that shows a man sitting at a desk. He rises and walks toward the camera. Then the scene cuts to show him leaving the room to answer a telephone, and he again faces the camera as he takes the call. Would you notice it if, between leaving the desk and speaking into the phone, the man suddenly began wearing a pair of glasses and his clothing and hairstyle changed?
If you're like every single subject who watched a film like this in an experimental setting, you would not notice these changes. Asked to describe what occurred in the movie, you would say nothing about the man's significantly altered appearance. Why not? Because you did not really pay attention to the man's looks, despite your conviction that you can accurately recall such details without trouble. Chabris and Simons use this example to discuss what they call the illusion of memory, our misunderstanding of how our memory works as we navigate the world. They point out that memory represents our attempt to make sense of events, not our absorption of everything that our senses feed to us. Memory is malleable, impressionable and frequently inaccurate.
The authors also describe common illusions of confidence, knowledge and cause-and-effect, among others. They are most engaging and convincing when they delve into the limits of our attention, which explain why nobody can drive well while talking on a cell phone and why pilots make serious errors when information from their control panels is projected onto their plane's windscreen. The title of the book refers to a now-famous experiment Chabris and Simons designed in which subjects often did not notice a person in a gorilla costume sauntering through a filmed basketball game when they had to count movements of the ball.
Reading "The Invisible Gorilla" is a humbling journey into the fallibility of our thinking. Because the book explains many common misperceptions, it should be required for anyone convinced of the truth of such intuitive beliefs as the accuracy of eyewitness accounts of important events, the cause-and-effect relationship between vaccinations and autism, and the role of Mozart's music in making babies smarter.
Jack El-Hai of Minneapolis writes on mind and medicine at newstilt.com.