Seeing the Invisible

music score

I learned to play the saxophone as an adult, so my memories of the experience are recent. After about two months of intense focus on note reading and beat counting, my instructor introduced me to musicality, or “reading between the notes.”

Using the piece that I had been playing for the past three weeks, my teacher started showing me all kinds of symbols on the page: dots and lines above notes, < or > above measures, and words printed on the score, such as pianissimo, forte, and andante. As he pointed to each one, the symbols literally appeared before my eyes. I don’t mean that I finally took the time to study them, I mean I had never even noticed their existence on the page. I had been so focused on whether a particular note was an A or a B or an E or an F that none of those marks had even penetrated my consciousness. To my conscious brain, the symbols didn’t exist until that moment.

Almost all the information that reaches our brain has to go past a sort of gatekeeper in the brainstem called the reticular activating system, or RAS. The RAS has a wide variety of functions, but arguably, one of its most fascinating jobs involves controlling our attention and awareness and determining whether we should pay attention to something or ignore it. This ability to discriminate is a live saver in terms of survival. If you’re a pigeon munching out in the park, a well-functioning RAS will let you basically ignore the other chowing pigeons so that you can scarf your bread crumbs in your happy zone, but the RAS will immediately activate your arousal mechanism and tell you to beat it as soon as you spot a hungry hawk. The RAS also filters out unimportant stimuli and makes it possible to do things like read a novel in a coffee shop. It tunes out the jazz music, the baristas’ banter, and the clumsy customer spilling his cappuccino two tables away to let you focus on your newest page-turner. The RAS also gives you a figurative nudge to the ribs when something comes up that interests you. Ever notice how you can be in the living room, busily balancing your checkbook, and not hear a conversation in the kitchen at all until someone mentions your name? Then your ears perk up like Yoda’s.

As helpful as the RAS is, if we’re not careful, we can walk around in automatic pilot, tuning into only a tiny fraction of life because our RASs think they know what’s important. Right now, before you read any further, I’d like you to stop for a moment and try a little exercise here: (I promise, it’ll be fun.)

How did you do? In the original study, 46% of people failed to notice the gorilla.* I don’t know about you, but sometimes in life, I can get so focused on my tasks or problems that I ignore really important information without even realizing it. Personally, I think music is a lot better when you pay attention to all those funny little symbols and words on the score; I also think it’s a good idea to notice when a gorilla comes into your midst. If we can be oblivious to words on a page and great apes in our ballgames, what else do we miss?  Who don’t we see? What solutions seem invisible? What new ideas or opinions don’t we hear? On the other hand, what new friends, answers, or perspectives are right under our noses waiting for the RAS to give them a break? Is it possible that the “reality” we take for granted is really a just dependent variable?

Today I challenge you to open your awareness and see the invisible.

(For more information on what I do, please visit

*Simons, D.J. Chabris, C. F. Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness
for dynamic events. Perception, 1999, vol 28, pages 1059- 1074.


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