There’s a gorilla in the hallway

Have you heard of the gorilla that everyone fails to see? If not, watch the video from the link at the end of this post (1) and you’ll see what I mean.

We humans are renowned for our plethora of cognitive biases (2). Our brain, in sorting out the world and simplifying it, is doing us all a favour. If we were to absorb all the information coming at us day and night, we would be unable to respond. We would be sitting ducks, lunch for any predator that happened to be passing, unable to reach decisions, always suffering from acute information overload. So we simplify, greatly. Not to say, on occasion, grossly. We don’t expect to see Gorillas, so we don’t. (Do watch that video again, if you are not yet convinced.)

This is why the tabloids love to give us simplistic answers: they do so because we love things simple. We don’t wish to know that the world is a thousand shades of grey, with no absolutes, no clearcut answers, far too many variables for most of us to make sense of.

We are not computers – at least not in the conventional sense. We don’t take all the data in and then analyse it – not even the most logical of us. Our gut responses act far faster than the mind can process. We react before we think. We flee before we analyse. The thinking catches up, later, maybe.

To put this another way. The world is a lot, lot more mysterious that we give it credit for. We are so good at filtering out, dismissing the inconvenient, shrugging off the things that don’t fit, that we often miss the gorilla in the hallway.

The majority of humans for the majority of human history have been aware of the mystery at the heart of life. Cave paintings, Stonehenge, world religions all testify to this. Yet, since the Enlightenment, we in the West have decided to package up this mystery as inconvenient and have chosen not to address it. We do this numerous ways, by giving primacy to the rational and the empirical, by saying that such things are unprovable, and by claiming the mysteries at life’s heart have little or nothing to do with what really matters in life. It’s as if we just decided the occasional gorilla in our midst is just too inconvenient to consider.

Yet our search for meaning continues.(3) We, of all the world’s creatures, are the only ones who need meaning and keep searching for it, whatever the circumstances. This is the gorilla in the hallway. We can’t move on without recognising it is there.

Maybe if we start listening to life’s mysteries, reincorporating them into our view of reality, we might be able to start undoing the damage we have done to this planet and all life on it. By this, I don’t mean that we should give up science, chuck out rationality and start again. I mean we should have a broader world view, incorporate the mysterious, and listen to what nature is saying to us in a different way. This requires not just measuring how much CO2, SO2 and NO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere (though that too) but how we sense nature is responding to us. Both complement each other, one does not negate the other.

Some will be uneasy with this, as if I am letting in gobbledygook by the front door (no, that is not the name of the gorilla!). Yet, many of us feel more at peace when in a natural environment than we do otherwise. Many say they find walking in the countryside to be deeply relaxing, even healing. The Japanese have turned this into a meditative technique and natural therapy called Shinrin-yoku that they believe brings physical and psychological benefits (4).

Science shows us that our brains respond very positively to greens and blues(5)(6). We can feel “at one with nature”; likewise, the expanse of the sea, or the sky at night, or a mountain-top view can give us a sense of the infinite. This is not an appeal for pantheism, far from it, but merely an illustration of how we sense more than we immediately understand. Cutting ourselves off from this experience is to deny the very core of us.

So, I guess this all boils down to a rather simple thought: when listening to nature, when seeing it more clearly, we might also begin to see ourselves more clearly. This is a matter of listening in a much deeper way than we are used to. It requires admitting that occasionally, just occasionally, the unexpected intrudes, blocking our way forward. We are now at such an impasse.

Putting the world to right can’t be solely a matter of recycling, cutting carbon emissions, and changing lightbulbs. It also needs to be a way of recreating harmony where we have wrought disorder and disaster. That harmony will be manifest in the peace we make with nature and in the peace we make with each other and ourselves.

None of this will be possible without letting the mysterious and the unknown back into our lives. Let’s give that gorilla a hug.


  • (1) Selective attention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZYLBTeMT6g
  • (2) For a long list of cognitive biases, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases
  • (3) Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946. An account of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, the finding of a purpose for his life, and how he turned this into a psychotherapeutic method.
  • (4) Website on Shinrin-yoku: https://healingforest.org/learn/
  • (5) Technical paper on cognition: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0001247.
  • (6) New Scientist on healing properties of green light: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2089062-green-light-found-to-ease-the-pain-of-migraine/
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4 thoughts on “There’s a gorilla in the hallway

  • Hi Ivan. Very much enjoying the blog which captures much of my thinking but which I’d not been able to crystallise. Sadly I find it difficult to know how we build on these ideas and get enough of 7bn people going the right way to turn things round. But keep going! Keep banging those rocks together!

    One thing in this latest piece I’m not happy with though: you say “We, of all the world’s creatures, are the only ones who need meaning and keep searching for it, whatever the circumstances.” It may look that way to us but this is an assumption. We don’t *know* and quite likely never can. Who can tell what dolphins, elephants or wasps do, or need, mentally?

    PS. I thought the piece on Quakerism very especially interesting.

    • Hi Keith,

      I am so pleased that you are reading the blog and enjoying it, even the Quaker bits! You are right, of course – we can’t really know what Doplphins or Elephants think. I should have said, as far as we know . . . My hope is that they are content with being what they are. At least they don’t seem to go around in a daze half the time, muttering to themselves about the state of the world.

      Best wishes,

      Ivan

      • Why “even the Quaker bits”? Quakerism is interesting and, as Christianity goes, has a lot to recommend it. I see it as being the equivalent of Soto Zen to Buddhism — there are certainly some interesting parallels.

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