How Our Brains Miss the Obvious

After the high-profile kidnapping in Cleveland, some wonder: How could so many people miss obvious signs?

In the house of alleged Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro, multiple padlocks kept interior doors shut, windows were nailed shut, and guests weren't allowed upstairs or in the basement.

In retrospect, some question why visitors didn't notice that something was amiss over the 10 years that three women were allegedly held captive there before their recent escape. But psychologists say few people would: We are so focused on the task on hand that it's easy to miss aberrant details.

In fact, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons found that half of people watching a video failed to notice a man dressed in a gorilla suit walking through a basketball game when they were told to count the number of passes among team members. Still, we think we notice things.

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"We have a bias to believe that we will notice all the important things," said Chabris, a professor at Union College and co-author with Simons of "The Invisible Gorilla".

In another experiment, Chabris and Simons staged a fake fight along a path and had subjects run past while chasing someone.

"Many did not notice [the fight]," Chabris said. "The thing you think is salient -- people fighting -- should grab your attention, but if you're chasing a suspect it's shockingly easy to miss things that in retrospect seem obvious."

So, padlocks on doors in a grimy house? It's entirely plausible that a neighbor going to borrow an egg, for instance, wouldn't see them.

"You're not going over there with the task of looking for something unusual," Chabris said.

Our brains form fast, general categorizations of our surroundings, said Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

"The world is terribly confusing; there's too much happening at the same time -- visually, auditorily, everything -- and the way we cope is by categorizing," she said. "We process the minimum we need in order to behave properly. Things that are aberrant blend in."

Plus, humans are able to focus inwardly while performing outward tasks, such as walking to the grocery store.

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"We can walk down the street and think about a grocery list," she said. "Our minds are interested in more interesting things than just walking around the world. We aren't aware of how much we're missing."

Our minds tend to play another trick with 20/20 hindsight, Chabris said. We may think certain signs were clues now, but cluttered, dirty houses, and even heavily locked doors, don't necessarily mean that someone is breaking the law.

"There's a line between being a kidnapper and being eccentric," Chabris said. "Whether those things are really signs that a heinous 10-year kidnapping is underway ... of all the people in the world with lots of locks on doors or grimy, unkempt interiors or even cardboard tents in their living rooms -- or all three -- how many are kidnappers or serial rapists?"

Of course, close friends and family might notice unusual behavior more than casual acquaintances.

"They might see changes in his behavior (adding more padlocks?) that others don't," Chabris said. "But the competing hypotheses -- 'he is eccentric' and 'he has people imprisoned behind there' -- are still much different in likelihood. So even someone who knows him well would be unlikely to entertain the latter. It's just so rare, and the alternative (being eccentric) so much more common."

Combined with the way our brains process memory, it's enough to make psychologists question the importance placed on eyewitness testimony.

"Add it all together and it is a problem," Chabris said. "As a cognitive psychologist who studies it, I wish there were a way to get more of that knowledge in the legal system."

One of Leonardo Da Vinci's strangest paintings, "The Adoration of the Magi" was commissioned for the altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, near Florence, in 1481. The work was never finished. In 1482, a 30-year-old Leonardo (1452-1519) abandoned the project to accept the post of court artist to the Duke of Milan. Now on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the painting is considered one of Leonardo's most intriguing works. Mentioned by Dan Brown in "The Da Vinci Code," it depicts the New Testament's account of the three wise men (or Magi) paying homage to the newborn Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary, in a bizarre landscape made of struggling horsemen, ruins and odd faces. The nativity scene is rather unusual: no oxen, donkey or stable. Even St. Joseph is missing. Much of the foreground is obscured with strokes of monochrome paint. This unusual painting was enough to inspire Dan Brown's conspiracy theory that the original drawing was hidden.

Art diagnostic expert Maurizio Seracini, director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology at the University of California, San Diego, and the only non-fictional living character mentioned in "The Da Vinci Code," shocked the art world in 2004 by hinting that the paint on "The Adoration of the Magi" was not applied by Leonardo. The real masterwork was actually underneath, he said, to the joy of Dan Brown's fans. "Using infrared technology, I found a totally new world which had been buried under brown paint for more than 500 years," Seracini told Discovery News "It is the largest collection of drawings of people and animals realized by Leonardo in a single work," Seracini said. Already discussed in academic meetings, the research and the drawings underneath were officially presented today for the first time in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio.

Underneath the faded browinsh ruins in the background, there isn't the crumbling pagan temple represented in the painting. "Instead, we found a building site. The workers are represented with incredible attention to details, and indeed they show emotion," Seracini said. "There is no desperation, but positive feelings: They are reconstructing the roof in the face of a new Christian era."

Although the surface of the painting shows two horses fighting, the masterpiece underneath reveals a full-blown battle behind the Virgin Mary's head, with men screaming in terror or raising arms.

While the ox and donkey finally emerge with the missing stable, other animals appear, too, including an elephant.

Finely sketched details, such as the feet of the Virgin Mary, are clearly visible.

The face of the young shepherd boy, in the bottom right of the drawing, is finally visible with plenty of detail.

One of the most striking features buried under the brown paint is a series of masterfully drawn portraits. "Each face is a masterpiece. The characters interact with each other; they talk and move. Quite an unusual scene for an adoration, which was usually intended as an aesthetic, still moment," Seracini said. "But this is Leonardo."