Alien Life: This Strange Quirk of the Human Mind Could Be Preventing Us From Finding E.T.

Updated | In the 1990s, American psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted a laughably simple but groundreaking experiment which, on the face of it, sounds more like comedy sketch than a piece of serious scientific research.

Participants were asked to watch a short video of two teams—one dressed in white, the other in black—passing a ball to one another. The viewers had to count the number of passes between the players dressed in white, a task made difficult by the fact they were all moving around, so concentration was required. Halfway through the video, someone in a gorilla costume enters the scene, stops for a moment in the middle of the players, beats their chest, and then casually walks out of the shot.

Aerial picture in which a small gorilla figure was inserted (top left) for the experiment. A cosmic gorilla effect could prevent us from finding aliens. Modified version of an original NASA image

Incredibly, around half the observers did not see the gorilla, a striking demonstration of a psychological phenomenon known as inattentional blindness—where an individual fails to perceive an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight, while they are focusing on something else.

This so-called "gorilla effect", as it came to be known, and other quirks of our psychology could be preventing scientists from finding extraterrestrial life—if it exists—according to neuropsychologists Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel Garcia from the University of Cádiz in Spain.

When we imagine other intelligent beings, we tend to think of them from our own limited perception of what aliens should be like, therefore, any evidence of their existence may manifest itself in ways that humans are simply not looking for, the authors suggest in a new study published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

"Our cognitive skills, psychology and neurobiology determine our task performance, in this case, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)," De la Torre told Newsweek. "I wanted to show that maybe our current strategy, which is mainly focused on radio signals or energy consumption traces, may be wrong."

"We project onto these intelligences many characteristics of ourselves," he said. "We try to understand the universe in a way that fits our beliefs, framework and senses. The reality could be very different."

He suggests then that SETI scientists need to widen their horizons. Perhaps there could be forms of intelligence based on the mysterious dark matter and energy that makes up almost 95% of the universe. Or maybe, there are intelligent beings that come from different dimensions, or universes, altogether.

"New discoveries in physics show us that other possibilities for reality exist. Maybe these intelligences originate from these realities," he said.

Because of this, the authors try to avoid the words "aliens" and "extraterrestrials" in their paper in favor of the more neutral term "non-terrestrials".

"I avoid those terms for three reasons," De la Torre said. "One, it automatically takes us to Hollywood stereotypes, and that I want to avoid. Two, even when I accept the possibility that other civilizations may exist on other planets, perhaps they travel across space by means other than rocket or propulsion systems, such as jumping through dimensions. Three, maybe some of these intelligences actually live in these other forms of reality: other dimensions, dark matter and energy, etc."

For the study, the researchers asked 137 people to distinguish aerial photos that contained artificial structures, such as buildings and roads, from ones with natural elements, like mountains and rivers. In a nod to Chabris and Simons' experiment, a tiny gorilla figure was inserted into one of the images to see if the participants noticed. They found that their results were similar to the original '90s experiment, with many participants failing to notice the gorilla figure in the image.

These psychological results demonstrate that even if signs of alien life are right in front of us, we still may not be able to identify them—what De la Torre calls the "cosmic gorilla effect".

In light of this, he argues that SETI should include more psychology experts and neuroscientists. "If we want to find other intelligences, multidisciplinary work is needed and psychologists are the experts for intelligence matters."

In the same paper, the researchers also proposed a new way of classifying intelligent civilizations using five factors: biology, longevity, psychosocial aspects, technological progress and distribution in space. They argue that existing classifications are too simplistic and tend to focus mainly on how much energy a civilization can harness.

A Type 1 civilization, in the new categorization, would be similar to ours in the sense that we may perish if we mishandle technology or planetary resources. If we survive in the long-term though, we could progress to a Type 2 civilization, which would have control over quantum and gravitational energy, space-time and the ability to explore entire galaxies. Finally, a Type 3 civilization would be made up of exotic, immortal beings with the power to traverse multiple dimensions and manipulate dark energy and matter.

This article has been updated to include comment from Gabriel de la Torre.