When I finished residency, I took a position at a University
clinic north of town. In order to get there, I had to cross a
bridge over a river. I drove over that bridge about 100 times
before the first snowfall.
On the first snowy day, while driving over the bridge, I noticed a
sign. The sign warned that the bridge could be icy.
Prior to that first snowy day, I had not noticed the sign.
A good illustration of the topic is in
the video here.
Subjects are instructed to watch the video and count the
number of times the basketball is passed by either the white team or
the black team.
It turns out that people often miss one of the more obvious events in
the video. About 46% of sober people see it, and only 18% of
drunk people see it.
The effect is discussed here.
I am not enough of a perceptual psychologist to be able to explain it
in technical terms, but I have found a use for this phenomenon in
clinical practice. Anecdotes such as the one at the start of
this post are commonplace. People have no trouble
understanding that a person might fail to see something that is not
relevant to their current situation, but see it immediately when it is
Imagine if you were a participant in a study, and were asked to watch a
video such as the one I linked to. And image how startled you
would be if you were one of the people who did not see the peculiar
event in the middle. Upon watching the video again, you might
very well wonder if there is something wrong with you. You
might even wonder, for a moment, if you are “going crazy,” whatever
Now, suppose you do have some sort of mental illness, say, panic
disorder. Uncharitable persons in your environment start
demeaning you, calling you “crazy.” They know you take
medication, they want to dominate you, so they call you “weak,” make
fun of you, and so forth.
Then, you start to notice some perceptual anomalies. They may
be perfectly ordinary things, such as when I failed to see the “bridge
may be icy” sign. But, if you are anxious, and people whom
you ought to be able to be able to trust are saying you are crazy, then
it can be awfully upsetting to notice phenomena such as inattentional
If you do not have a solid understanding of psychosis, as well as an
understanding of normal variants of perception, you might really think
you are loosing your mind.
In a clinical setting, it can be very helpful to do a little teaching
about how ordinary perception can be imprecise, or even overtly
mistaken. Such things are not a sign of mental illness.
They can, and do, happen to everyone. Normalizing
these experiences can calm down the fear of insanity (phrenophobia)
that often contributes to the subjective distress experienced by
someone with a nonpsychotic mental illness.
This is explained, somewhat, here:
Phrenophobia is the false belief,
and associated fear, that
there is something wrong with one’s mind which may result in
“insanity”. This belief, although widespread, is often denied or
concealed by misleading euphemisms such as “nervous breakdown”. A
cluster of five misconceptions is usually present. All are
misinterpretation of anxiety symptoms resulting from sustained tension
- My feelings of anxiety point to approaching insanity.
- My memory failures or distortions are signs of mental
- My difficulties in concentration indicate mental
- My irritability signals mental disturbance.
- If these symptoms do not lead to psychosis, my insomnia
Now, taking a completely different perspective, it may be interesting
to note how inattentional blindness also can lead to the failure to
notice true insanity. Like failing to
notice how insane it is to go around starting unnecessary wars.
To get an
idea of how insane this sort of thing can be, listen to
Sage’s podcast of an interview with a guy in
Did you see the gorilla?