Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

The experimenters tested out their theory with another video in which an actor suddenly changes into a whole different person, wearing a completely different set of clothes. Seventy percent of normal people don't notice that, either. They also don't notice it in real life. In one study a blond-haired man wearing a yellow shirt handed students a form to fill out, then took the completed form behind a bookcase to file. When he came back out he was a dark-haired man wearing a blue shirt. He wasn't the same guy in disguise; he was a whole different person. It didn't matter. Seventy-five percent of the students had no idea they'd just interacted with two different people.

The scariest study, though, was the one NASA did with commercial airplane pilots. The researchers put them in a flight simulator and asked them to do a bunch of routine landings. But on some of the landing approaches the experimenters added the image of a large commercial airplane parked on the runway, something a pilot would never see in real life (at least, let's hope not). One quarter of the pilots landed right on top of the airplane. They never saw it.

I've seen photographs from the study, and what's interesting is that if you're not a pilot, the parked plane is obvious. You can't miss it, and you don't have to be autistic to see it, either. I'd bet the ranch that the only people who could possibly miss that plane would have to be commercial pilots. If you're a professional, expecting to see what a professional normally would see, there's a 25 percent chance you'll miss a huge commercial aircraft parked crossways blocking the landing strip in a flight simulator.

That's because normal people's perceptual systems are built to see what they're used to seeing. If they're used to seeing gorillas in the middle of basketball games, they see gorillas. If they're not used to seeing gorillas in the middle of basketball games, they don't. They have inattentional blindness.

I have no idea how a visual thinker would do on these experiments, but my guess is visual thinkers would see the gorilla a lot more often than verbal thinkers. I'm almost positive there's no prey animal on earth who would miss that gorilla, that's for sure, though I think predators would see the gorilla, too. A predator, by the way, is an animal like a dog or a cat who hunts and kills other animals for food; a prey animal is the animal the predator hunts. There's also another category of animals you don't hear about as much, which is the scavenger animals (like vultures) who do eat meat but don't kill the animals they eat. All animals, including human beings, fall into at least one of these categories, and quite a few -- including a lot of primates -- belong to more than one. Humans are more predators than prey, but we share qualities with both. In terms of the size of our teeth, we're defenseless, but as soon as we developed tools we became predators.

It's so hard for normal people to see what scares cattle that I finally developed a checklist of mostly visual details for plant managers to look out for. Things like pieces of metal that wiggle, reflections on water, bright spots, contrasts of color, and air hissing or blowing in their faces. I tell the owners, if you have three "bad" details you have to correct all three. Then your animal will walk up the chute without any trouble and you can throw away your electric prod.

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