"Life, as we know it."

In recent years, some members of the scientific community have begun to realize that this oft-repeated phrase encapsulates a concept that appears to have been limiting modern efforts to recognize signs of extraterrestrial life, both intelligent and primitive: our search efforts tend to focus on what is familiar to us, as opposed to our keeping an eye out for something that might be truly alien. Toward that end, a recently-published study has proposed that our inherent bias towards seeking the familiar may have been blinding us to evidence that has been staring us in the face all along.

"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," explains neuropsychologist Gabriel De la Torre, from Spain’s University of Cádiz. He and his colleague, Manuel García, posit that in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, our own neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness wind up playing a key role, a facet of this field of research that has otherwise remained unaddressed.

De la Torre and García have published a paper in the journal Acta Astronautica regarding the problems that can arise, and probably have arisen, from our otherwise narrow idea on what signs of extraterrestrial life might look like, using a 1990 study on selective attention known as "The Invisible Gorilla". The study involved having participants watch a video of two teams of people passing two balls amongst one another, with the instructions to count how many times the members of one of the teams passed one of the balls. The test concluded with the correct answer being given to the viewer, but a question was also presented: "But did you see the gorilla?" Indeed, on average only 50 percent of the participants managed to notice that a person in a gorilla suit walked right through the middle of the group, an effect caused by the study’s participants being so involved in paying attention to a singular aspect of the video.

De la Torre and García carried out a similar experiment of their own, this time asking participants to look for artificial structures in aerial photographs, picking out man-made objects from natural elements. And, taking a cue from the Invisible Gorilla, they also inserted a small graphic of a gorilla in one of the pictures. And as with the 1990 experiment, about half of the participants failed to spot the gorilla.

"It is very striking, but very significant and representative of how our brain works," continues De la Torre. "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."

"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. 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."

De la Torre cautions that this bias can work both ways, using the geometric structure found in Ceres’ bright Occator Crater as an example. "Our structured mind tells us that this structure looks like a triangle with a square inside, something that theoretically is not possible in Ceres. But we are seeing things where there are none, a phenomenon in psychology called pareidolia."

However, that isn’t necessarily the end of the story, as De la Torre points out that "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." 

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