Inattentional Blindness and the Invisible Violinist

Anime violinist ao blue

If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? It would be hard to prove if you weren’t there to notice it. But what if you were there… and you still didn’t notice it? This is something we experience every day. Even cavemen couldn’t possibly focus on all the stimuli around them at once – from the rustles in the bushes, to the winds blowing by, to the tribesmen hunting for food – so what chance do we have, in our world of constant advertisements vying for our attention? Our most natural coping mechanism is to (justifiably) unconsciously tune out most of the stimuli around us; but the case of the Invisible Violinist begs the question: What are we missing?

Considering this story happened five years ago (well past my first blog post) it doesn’t seem timely. But I just learnt about this, and found it very interesting regardless. This was the email that first reported the event in question:

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousand of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

I really like this story, because it’s a nice example of the psychological phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness,” a term coined by psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock in their book of the same name. This is basically the failure to notice something that’s right in front of you because you’re paying attention to something else.

To be fair, people were presumably on their way to do something, hence the fact that they were going to or from the metro. Also, the general population doesn’t care much about classical music, let alone a violinist playing without the rest of his orchestra. So this isn’t exactly a fair experiment.

In fact, it’s not a scientific experiment at all, because there’s no control group or discernible dependent and independent variable whatsoever. Lots of people like to call this type of thing a “social experiment,” but I much prefer to call it a “case study.”

Also, the description of how no one noticed him was false – a surveillance video on YouTube shows exactly what happened. At the end of the short video, one woman noticed him, saying that she just saw him perform at the Library of Congress the other day. See the video for yourself:

Still, the point of the story is good. As Mack and Rock say, “there is no conscious perception without attention.” Perhaps that’s not the most poetic way of saying it, but it’s true. Unless you stop to look around, you may never see what’s right in front of you.

This is why students need to not just be present in front of their teachers… but they have to also pay attention. This is also why artists need to go out and explore in order to find inspiration when they feel stuck on something with no idea how to continue. These can be found with a little sense of adventure and the willingness to be open enough to accept what is there, because sometimes the best and most life-changing encounters happen totally out of the blue.

There’s a Japanese proverb called “ichi-go ichi-e,” (一期一会) which can be translated as: “Cherish each moment, because it may never happen again.” You can be sure that the women who recognized Bell will not soon forget that random day in the metro station. But to practically everyone else, he was all but invisible.

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2 Responses to Inattentional Blindness and the Invisible Violinist

  1. six8ten says:

    Tangentially related:
    Last weekend I went to the Hollywood Collector’s Convention in Kudanshita, Tokyo. One of the celebrity guests was Robert Englund, probably best known for his role as Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. I attended the convention in full Freddy Krueger makeup and costume. At the end of the day, I rode the trains over to Kanda with a few other people, and afterward rode the Chuo line across most of Tokyo out to the Tachikawa area, still in full costume/makeup (minus the glove, which was in my bag). While a few people noticed, and one asked for a photo, the number of people who did not notice was a bit surprising.

    I don’t remember where I read it (you may even have written about it here at some point), or the exact details, but someone did a similar sort of “experiment” with a juggler on a unicycle in the middle of a park or some such, and then interviewed several people who had walked through the park while on their phones in an attempt to show a lack of environmental awareness; many of them had not noticed.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi six8ten,
      Haha – I wish I videotaped that train ride.
      The experiment you described is a relatively famous study from a few years ago (at least famous to people who study inattentional blindness) and you’re right – that’s the same idea I was talking about in this article. In that study, when they were talking on the cellphone, they were much less likely to report having noticed a juggling clown on a unicycle. The study is here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.1638/abstract
      I actually didn’t write an article about this yet, but I’ve been planning to for a long time.
      Thanks for the comment!

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