When You Travel, How Much Do You See?

There’s a fun video you’ve almost certainly watched online. It starts with an announcement:

“This is an awareness test. How many passes does the team in white make?”

Then you’re watching three basketball players in white suits facing off against three others wearing black. The ball is passed around as everyone moves about seemingly randomly. Your eyes are fixed on the ball. Ten passes, eleven, twelve…

After 30 seconds, the video clip freezes, and the voice-over congratulates you on spotting the right number of passes (because you probably did).

“It’s 13 passes. Well done. But – did you see the dancing bear?”

The clip runs again, and this time, you see the person in a bear suit, wandering right into the middle of the picture, lingering for a few seconds, then moonwalking out the other side. 

How on earth did you miss it the first time?

That video went viral. It’s amazing – and it works on everyone, which is the most worrying thing about it.

It’s the work of Harvard experimental psychologist Daniel Simons, and it’s designed to show us how limited our awareness of our surroundings is when our attention is focused in certain ways. The scientific term for this is inattentional blindness – and it’s the reason that dancing bear seemed so completely invisible to you during your first viewing.

There’s another way to phrase all this, and for any world traveller, it’s a really alarming prospect: we all have the ability to miss seeing things that are right in front of us

You’re looking out the window of the world’s most famous train ride, and you miss all the fascinating local stories being played out inside the train. You’re so transfixed by the Austrian scenery that you forget to look in the shop windows at the cake. You’re so swept away by one particular thing that everything else disappears from your peripheral view – and later, you’re amazed when you’re told about it.

The famous Trans-Siberian Express passenger train, is seen in this picture skirting the rugged shores of Lake Baikal during midsummer, towards its final destination of Vladivostok.
The famous Trans-Siberian Express passenger train, is seen in this picture skirting the rugged shores of Lake Baikal during midsummer, towards its final destination of Vladivostok.

“I had no idea!”

This isn’t about the amount of information our eyes take in. In words alone, we consume around 100,000 per day (and retain basically none of them). And that’s just words! Think about everything else you encounter as you go about your daily routine.

If incoming information was the same thing as our awareness of it, we’d be just fine – by one reckoning, using the standard unit of electronic information (the Bit), we take in tens of millions of bits of information every second, from our eyes, our ears, our senses of smell and touch, and whatever flavours are flooding our taste-buds right then. That’s an encyclopeadia’s worth, every second – and since our brains can process and identify images quicker than we can blink, we’re certainly capable of taking a lot of that information in. 

But…we don’t. We tune it out. It goes in – and it’s gone.

The problem is that we’re consciously aware of so little. Less than 50 bits of that flood, it’s estimated. So that’s a staggering 99.99999% of the world completely escaping our attention, simply because our brains think it’s not important, sometimes with immensely frustrating results. 

Take the experience of National Geographic’s roaming storyteller Andrew Evans, when he journeyed from Washington D.C. to Antarctica to fulfill his lifelong dream of seeing penguins – and because he was peering through the lens of his camera, he completely missed the penguin that had snuck up behind him to say hello.

Penguin inhabitants of Antarctica
Penguin inhabitants of Antarctica

Cameras are a classic trap for our attention. In the moment, we only see what the lens sees – and later, we find we’ve filtered out almost everything else. Instead of a memory shaped by all five of our senses, it’s reduced to just one – and if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s then flattened into two dimensions as well.

Psychologists call this bounded awareness, and it’s a useful thing, because it stops our brains exploding when we’re hit with the torrent of stimuli the world throws at us every day. 

Unfortunately, it also stops us from appreciating all the amazing, life-changing moments of wonder and serendipity that travel throws our way. It stops us enjoying travel the way it’s meant to be enjoyed: as a string of delights you never truly imagined before you arrived. 

Our expectations have a big role in what our brain lets us become aware of. If we’re not expecting it, we’re far more likely to miss it – as proven by a study that simulated the process of scanning luggage at an airport to find banned items. One group doing the scanning was told these kinds of banned items usually appeared 50% of the time; the other was told it was about 10%. 

Because the first group was expecting to see more, it unconsciously paid closer attention – and its error rate was much lower than the other group.

So what’s the answer for travellers who want to really, truly see it all?

First, you should always seek out a second opinion. Ideally, you should rely on the awareness of people who have spent a huge amount of their time learning what’s worth seeing. In other words, you need a guide. The best guides know what you’re here to see – and know how to point your attention towards it.

Another thing you can do is try becoming your own devil’s inquisitor – the lesser-known companion to a devil’s advocate. Instead of believing everything your imperfect, attention-blinded brain is telling you, you turn yourself into the equivalent of that small child that always has a question ready for anything an adult says to them. 

“Yeah, but why?”

“But what if it wasn’t?”

“Yeah, but what if you’re wrong?”

In most situations in life, because of our natural tendencies to attain the minimum practical certainty about things in order to move forward through our day, in other words to make up our minds quickly, we don’t stop to question the obvious things. (Because, why would we? They’re obvious!) 

Travel is a parade of unfamiliar sights that require more than a glance to understand – yet our brains will try to understand them quickly, by jumping to conclusions as fast as we do in normal life (when we feel the clock is ticking and have no time to waste). 

The result: those assumptions are often wide of the mark, we end up devoting too little attention to the things that matter – and we miss so many of the discoveries we’re really here to see.

You can prevent this by overseeking – by pushing harder than normal for information on everything, harder than seems reasonable under the circumstances, including on things that seem obvious. Professional travel writers call this “asking stupid questions” – because in many cases, the answers seem obvious in advance…

Until suddenly, and more frequently than you’d believe, they’re not obvious at all, and you just learned something new about the world.

So – ask for a second pair of eyes. Question everything. Rewire your awareness of the world. 

And if you retrain your brain enough, who knows – you may even see real dancing bears out there!

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