What? Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention

I had a bit of a surprise in church this morning.  During the sermon, the visiting preacher, Pastor Paul Hontz of Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, Michigan, showed a brief video to make a point about attentiveness.  In it, we’re asked to watch two teams of young people passing basketballs, and to count the number of passes made by the team in white.  If you haven’t seen the video, watch it before you continue reading.

I, of course, being the somewhat competitive person that I sometimes am, dutifully focused my attention, and counted the number of passes.  After silently congratulating myself for having counted correctly, I went completely blank when the narrator asked, “But did you see the moonwalking bear?”  The what???  Even after the replay, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the bear was actually there the first time, and had to look it up on the Internet just to be sure.

This was actually a public safety commercial, warning drivers to watch out for people on bicycles: “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.”  The commercial draws upon research on what psychologists have come to call inattentional blindness.  More examples can be seen at The Invisible Gorilla website.  My personal favorite: out on the street, a young man (who is in cahoots with the research team recording the interaction) is asking an older man for directions.  As they’re talking, people carrying a door pass between them.  In one smoothly rehearsed move, one of the men carrying the door  switches places with the young man asking directions, and after the door passes, carries on the conversation as if nothing had happened.  And the older gentleman, bless his soul, picks up where he left off, not noticing that he is giving directions to an entirely different person.

Psychologists use experiments like this to show that perception and memory don’t work the way we think they do.  We think we’re taking everything in, recording details as if our eyes and brains operated like video cameras.  But the truth is, we only notice a very small fraction of what’s going on around us, depending on where we focus our attention.

Pastor Hontz’s point was that on any given Sunday, we may notice all kinds of things about the church service–things we like, things we don’t like–and miss the presence of God.

The point is well taken, and well worth pondering.  Because in all likelihood, it goes way beyond Sunday.  What we don’t attend to, we don’t see.  What we don’t see, for us, doesn’t exist.  And when it comes to the work of God in the world, or to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, to what extent might we suffer from a spiritual form of inattentional blindness?  How might we miss an answer to prayer, because it wasn’t the answer we were watching for?

A further caution: researchers also tell us that people who are presumed to be experts in some skill may be more susceptible to inattentional blindness than novices.  Greater awareness does not necessarily come with experience.  Our professional training may so focus our attention in set directions that we fail to notice what might be obvious to someone else.  Such is the fatal lesson of the Eastern Airlines flight crew whose plane crashed because they were so intent on finding why a warning light in the cockpit was flashing that they didn’t hear the alarm or see the ground rushing to meet them.

Who knows how many moonwalking bears are hiding in plain sight?  It’s not only easy to miss something you’re not looking for, it’s normal.  If we want to see what God is doing, we have to look.  And we have to be willing to accept as simple fact that we are often looking for the wrong thing.

7 thoughts on “What? Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention

  1. I love your analysis! Unfortunately, we were snowed in and missed church . . . and thus the video on attentiveness. Fortunately, I was able to see the video on your blog and, like you, congratulated myself for counting correctly. (I’m a number’s person, and my job consists of number crunching, so I was quite pleased with myself!) Seriously, though, I can now see just how much one can miss when focusing only on specific things. As you said, “What we don’t attend to, we don’t see”. And yes, if we want to see what God is doing, we have to look.

    So many times I’ve suffered from a spiritual form of “inattentional blindness”. I’ve looked for and hoped for certain things in my life to materialize, such as prayer being answered a specific way. And when it wasn’t, I figured God must not be listening. But in reflection, God had always been there . . . listening . . . and answering. He’s just answered prayers differently than what I’d wanted or expected. I now realize He was always there in the midst of everything, like the gorilla doing the Moon Dance . . . while people, things and life moved at a rapid pace. But since I was so focused on specific things, I missed the whole picture and what God was doing.

    I’m going to download “The Invisible Gorilla” to my Kindle. I’m looking forward to a good read on how our intuitions and perceptions can and do deceive us . . . and perhaps becoming more aware of my surroundings.

    This really opened my eyes. Thank you!

    1. It all made me think of Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Keep watch.” Or Paul: “Be on the alert.” And then, of course, we might all help each other see what we’re missing…

    2. This is an extremely timely post! I found a wooded, seldom used trail a couple of weeks ago that I absolutely love to run. Wanting to share my treasure with my hubby, I took him and our dog to my special trail yesterday evening for nice after dinner stroll. I noticed for the very first time that there is a large tree growing right in the middle of the trail! I somehow managed to maneuver around it when I’m running, but its existence did not register in my head for the last two weeks. I actually thought I was on a different trail last night for surely I could not miss a large tree right in front of me, right???

  2. Imagine my surprise, sitting in a suburb of Indianapolis, to see Paul Hontz’ name in your blog this morning! And imagine my dread, at the end of this comment, to have to repent of my sin of pride as I tell you that our son, Chris Conrad, is District Superintendent of the West Michigan District of the Wesleyan Church which makes him Dr. Hontz’ boss!! To put Dr. Hontz in the context of Hillside is a challenge in itself, for I would have thought “never the twain shall meet.” Now, if we can only get Chris to see the wisdom of having you preach in Holland! (Michigan, that is) And when that happens I will drive the five hours to sit in the front row and grin the whole time!

    1. Small world, isn’t it? As it turns out, Paul’s brother is a long time member of Hillside. Otherwise, that might be too much of a coincidence? 😉

      1. Last fall I went for a run through one of my favorite regional parks. I was surprised when got about a mile in and saw a bunch of trucks parked in an open space. Usually there are no motor vehicles allowed, but I figured it was some parks maintenance people or something. I continued my run, not noticing anything else unusual until I made my way out of the park, past a sign that read, PARK CLOSED FOR SPECIAL HUNT BY PERMIT ONLY. I was running through a forest while guys with guns were sitting around waiting to shoot things that were running through the forest! From Mark:DUCK!

    2. I notice some things, like a bright green bird that often likes to hang out with a flock of pigeons and a man who feeds the stray cats in the park and pigeons come and eat right alongside the cats. But I’ve nearly missed other things like vans backing out, cyclists crossing in front of me, and a policeman who recently told me he’s seen me running every day for who knows how long. And I appreciate the link to the invisible gorilla site. Fascinating!

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