SCIENCE
10/21/2015 09:53 am ET Updated Oct 23, 2015

Mindfulness May Help You See The 'Invisible Gorilla'

Just a few minutes of mindfulness can boost your awareness.
Practicing mindfulness may improve your awareness, psychologists say.
SIphotography via Getty Images
Practicing mindfulness may improve your awareness, psychologists say.

Most of us have experienced "inattentional blindness" at one time or another, even if we didn't realize what was happening: when we are so focused on certain things in the environment, we are quite literally unable to notice the unexpected -- even if it is happening right before our eyes -- from road hazards while driving to something burning on the stove while cooking.

The phenomenon was famously spotlighted in the 1999 "invisible gorilla" experiment conducted by Harvard University psychologists Dr. Daniel Simons and Dr. Christopher Chabris. They showed students a video featuring a group of people passing a couple of basketballs, and asked them to count how many times the balls were tossed.

Try it for yourself by watching the video below:

Did you notice something odd? In the midst of the ball tossing, someone in a gorilla suit walked right across the frame. About half of the students who watched the video simply didn't notice, because they were so focused on counting the tosses that they were "blind" to the gorilla.

In a new experiment, an international team of researchers has demonstrated that people who practice mindfulness -- a psychological technique to focus your mind and maintain a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment -- are less likely to experience inattentional blindness.

"This could provide support for the idea that mindfulness helps people notice but not dwell on things in their environment," Dr. Timothy Schofield, a research fellow at the Australian National University and lead author of the study, told The Huffington Post in an email.

The study, published in the December 2015 edition of the journal Consciousness and Cognition, involved 794 men and women. Some of the participants were guided through a seven-minute mindfulness exercise in which they ate raisins and meditated on the sensory experience -- how the raisins tasted, smelled and felt in the mouth. Other participants simply listened to an audio recording about raisins.

Next, the participants were asked to complete a task in which they tracked black and white shapes on a computer screen. Instead of a "gorilla" walking through the ball-tossers, a red plus symbol floated across the screen.

The researchers found that the participants who practiced mindfulness before the task were 8 percent more likely to notice the red symbol than their counterparts who simply listened to the audio recording about raisins.

"Mindfulness helped people notice this shape, meaning it reduced their inattentional blindness," Schofield said. "However, we then asked them to identify this shape from a line-up -- think a police line-up of criminals, but with shapes -- they were no better."

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Timothy Schofield, Ph.D.

The researchers concluded that practicing mindfulness may foster awareness in the short-term, but more research is needed to determine how long the effects of a single mindfulness session may last. 

"That being said, there is other research showing the long-term effects of mindfulness training on attention," Schofield said, "so I’m mildly confident that the reductions in inattentional blindness will be sustained in those who practice mindfulness regularly."

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