Would you see a gorilla walking through a group of basketball players who were passing balls back and forth? Not if your attention was focused on counting the number of passes made between players, say cognitive scientists. In a now well-known study on “inattentional blindness,” roughly one-half of participants failed to see the woman in a gorilla suit who stopped in the middle of the basketball players, thumped her chest, and then walked away. How can half of the subjects miss the gorilla?

According to the study’s authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com), this perceptual error results when we focus our attention on a particular aspect of our visual world. When our attention is focused, we tend not to notice unexpected objects, even potentially important ones that are right where we’re looking. We concentrate so hard on one thing that we become “blind” to something else that’s right in front of our eyes.

This finding alone would not surprise us all that much. Sure, everyone misses things. What’s surprising is the extent to which the subjects in the experiment were shocked, indeed dumbfounded, that they had missed the gorilla. What the gorilla study truly reveals is the power of the illusion of attention – our misplaced confidence in our ability to see far more than we actually do. In fact, our usually vivid visual experience of the world likely enhances the illusion by leading us to assume that unusual objects or visually distinctive events will surely draw our attention. Not so, according to many cognitive studies that confirm the gorilla experiment. The reality is that we simply don’t pay as much attention to our surroundings as we think we do.

The implications for lawyers are many. First, most cases depend on eye-witness testimony. The illusion of attention should force us to scrutinize all witness accounts for the  effects of inattentional blindness.

Second, our inattention is amplified by activities and devices that consume our attention. In other words, muti-tasking – an occupational hazard for most lawyers – simply doesn’t work; it only spreads our already scarce attentional resources even thinner. You can’t do two  things at once as well as you can do either one alone. And it’s not a question of how smart or efficient you are, but rather a basic property of the structure of your brain. Still, remaining vigilant about the illusion of attention can at least help us avoid missing what we need to see in both law and life.