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The Unreachable Perfection of the Past and the Gorilla bias.

In a recent session with a patient of mine she expressed deep regret for her past relationship choices. Her father asked her to clear some old boxes stored in the attic and she bumped into letters of a long lost love. It was more than a decade later. Never mind they had serious sexual incompatibility. Never mind she was now settling with a new partner. Never mind he was now married.

The truth is that our mind has a selective bias, and is able to idealize the past and discard the good things of the present. Whilst intently listening to my patient I was reminded of the classic 1999 study “inattentional blindness”. In this study, participants were asked to count how many times basketball players passed a ball between themselves on a video clip. A full 46% of participants didn’t notice that, part through the video, a person dressed as a gorilla walks on, pounds their chest, then walks off again

This finding has been confirmed in a recent paper by Sandra Utz. The study asked participants to listen to snippets of music while performing a counting task. Half of these pieces had a brief animal sound inserted into them, usually a gorilla sound. 30% of participants failed to notice the animal sound.

This study shows that when our attentional resources are concentrated on a specific task, we can easily become blind to other, bizarre things going on. In conclusion, when my patient was focusing on counting the chances of past lost happiness, she forgot to notice the ones in front of her.

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