A cosmic gorilla effect could blind the detection of aliens

Aerial picture to which a small gorilla was incorporated
(top left) for an experiment. The more intuitive observers
identified it more times than the more rational and
methodical ones. Credit: Modified photo of an original NASA

A well-known experiment with young people bouncing a ball
showed that observers focusing on counting the passes failed
to detect a man in a gorilla suit crossing the screen.
According to researchers at the University of Cádiz (Spain),
something similar could be happening when astronomers seek
intelligent, non-earthly radio signals, which perhaps
manifest themselves in dimensions that escape our perception,
perhaps through unknown dark matter or energy.

One of the problems that has preoccupied experts in cosmology
is the detection of . Are we really
looking in the right direction? Maybe not, according to the
study published in the journal Acta Astronautica by
neuropsychologists Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel García from
the University of Cádiz.

“When we think of other intelligent beings, we tend to see them
from our perceptive and conscience sieve; however, we are
limited by our sui generis vision of the world, and it’s hard
for us to admit it,” says De la Torre. “What we are trying to
do with this differentiation is to contemplate other
possibilities—for example, beings of dimensions that our minds
cannot grasp; or intelligences based on dark matter or energy,
which make up almost 95 percent of the universe and which we
are only beginning to glimpse. There is even the possibility
that other universes exist, as the texts of Stephen Hawking and
other scientists indicate.”

The authors say that our own neurophysiology, psychology and
consciousness can play an important role in the search for
non-terrestrial civilizations, an aspect that they consider has
been neglected until now. They conducted an experiment with 137
people who had to distinguish aerial photographs with
artificial structures (buildings, roads) from photos with
natural elements (mountains, rivers). In one of the images, the
researchers inserted a character disguised as a gorilla to see
if the participants noticed.

This test was inspired by the one carried out by the famous
1990s study by researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel
Simons, who demonstrated the phenomenon of inattention
blindness. A person in a gorilla costume could pass unnoticed
in front of a scene gesticulating while the observers were busy
counting the ball passes of players in white shirts. Half of
subjects failed to notice the man in the costume.

“It is very striking, but very significant and representative
of how our brain works,” says De la Torre, who explains that
the results were similar in the case of his experiment with the
images. “In addition, our surprise was greater, since before
doing the test to see the inattentional blindness, we assessed
the participants with a series of questions to determine their
cognitive style—whether they were more intuitive or
rational—and it turned out that the intuitive individuals
identified the gorilla in our photo more often than those more
rational and methodical subjects.”

Inside the Occator crater of the dwarf planet Ceres appears a
strange structure, looking like a square inside a triangle.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

“If we transfer this to the problem of searching for other
non-terrestrial intelligences, the question arises about
whether our current strategy may result in failing to perceive
the gorilla,” says the researcher. “Our traditional conception
of space is limited by our brain, and we may have the signs
above and be unable to see them. Maybe we’re not looking in the
right direction.”

Another example presented in the article is an apparent
geometric structure that can be seen in the images of Occator,
a crater of the dwarf planet Ceres famous for its bright spots.
“Our structured mind tells us that this structure looks like a
triangle with a square inside, something that theoretically is
not possible in Ceres,” says De la Torre. “But we are seeing
things where there are none, a phenomenon in psychology called

However, the neuropsychologist points out another possibility:
“The opposite could also be true. We can have the signal in
front of us and not perceive it or be unable to identify it. If
this happened, it would be an example of the cosmic gorilla
effect. In fact, it could have happened in the past, or it
could be happening right now.”

Three types of intelligent civilizations

In their study, the authors also discuss different possible
classes of intelligent civilizations. They present a
classification with three types based on five factors: biology,
longevity, psychosocial aspects, technological progress and
distribution in space.

An example of a Type 1 civilizations is our own, which could be
ephemeral if it mishandles technology or planetary resources,
or if it fails to survive a cataclysm. But it could eventually
evolve into a Type 2 civilization, characterized by the
longevity of its members, who control quantum and gravitational
energy, manage space-time and are able to explore galaxies.

“We were well aware that the existing classifications are too
simplistic and are generally only based on the energy aspect.
The fact that we use radio signals does not necessarily mean
that other civilizations also use them, or that the use of
energy resources and their dependence are the same as ours,”
the researchers point out, recalling the theoretical nature of
their proposals.

The third type of intelligent civilization, the most advanced,
would comprise exotic beings with an eternal life, capable of
creating in multidimensional and multiverse spaces, and with an
absolute dominion of dark energy and matter.

Explore further:

Expecting the unexpected does not improve one’s chances of
seeing it (w/ Video)

More information: Gabriel G. De la Torre et al. The
cosmic gorilla effect or the problem of undetected non
terrestrial intelligent signals, Acta Astronautica
(2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2018.02.036

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