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Would you See the Gorilla?

Updated: Jul 4

A group of students were invited to count how many times dancers on stage swapped partners. The students observed the dancers carefully and, at the end, reported the number they'd come to. 'But did you see the man in the gorilla suit frolicking in between the dancers?' they were asked and none of them had. They had to see the dance played back on video to believe that there really was a gorilla prancing about.

This is known as inattentional blindness and it can affect all of us and influence the way we interpret the world around us and the credence we give those who perceive the world differently. This kind of myopia plays out in our lives in lots of ways.

Once upon a time, I called the police when I was woken in the middle of the night to my door being rattled and banged. 'There's a man hammering on my door' I reported. When the police arrived they checked with me, 'A man, you say. Did you see him? We can only find a woman, drunk and confused about where she lives.' I was both shocked and embarrased. In my fear, I had been certain it was an ill intentioned man. There hadn't been any shadow of doubt in my mind and I found it nearly impossible to associate the experience I had of being woken in a state of alarm with the account the police gave me of the lost woman. This event doesn't map directly onto the invisible gorilla experiment, but it did make me realise when I came across this research that I would almost certainly not have noticed the gorilla. It's a humbling realisation.

We can be so fixed on something that we miss the obvious and only when a novel question is posed, do we begin to perceive the world differently. Life can bring us experiences that force us to see the world through new lenses. Sometimes it's wonder that bursts upon us but, more often, it's pain and loss that shatters everything we have known to be true. As a student nurse embarking on my training at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, it was the double whammy of meeting children from other religions who were dying, that irredemably fractured my world view. The question of suffering was thrust upon me in a whole new visceral way and I discovered that the Evangelical Christian framework I had grown up in was frightenly inadequate. My existential angst gave rise to nightmares about burning up in hell – it was the first step on a long journey of deconstruction.

This is an example of an intangible loss that gave rise to questions that caused me to see the world and my place in it in a new way. Tangible losses can lead to new questions too – the death of someone close, a frightening diagnosis, the loss of a job or poverty, for example.

Sometimes, everything is so painful, so broken, that asking any kind of question is out of reach. Under these conditions we distract ourselves – in the Grief Recovery Method these distractions are called Short Term Energy Relieving Behaviours (STERBS). It could be something relatively benign like shopping or reading trashy novels, or something that leads to another breaking point like alcoholism or self-harm. What they share is the ability to momentarily relieve the pain but they fail to guide us to the questions that will help us see clearly.

The question that has helped me and many others navigate the experience of loss and grief, is What is incomplete? This is like asking Where is the gorilla? Rather than focusing on the dance of pain that we're immersed in, we are invited to look at our experience of loss differently.

This question usually reveals answers of an emotional nature – from my example about the loss of faith arose answers: I am angry about my religious indoctrination. When I asked this question about my grandmother's death, one answer was that I felt sad that I hadn't visited her in hospital before she died. And after Julia, my doctoral supervisor's death, I was devastated that she wasn't there to guide me through the final stages of my thesis.

To experience peace after loss, these answers invite action. The actions that most effectively bring peace to our hearts are:


  • When I remember how the Sunday school teacher taught me and my friends that people who didn't believe in Jesus would go to hell, I am angry and I forgive her.

Perhaps an expression of forgiveness just wouldn't be authentic and in this case, acknowledging that you are nolonger going to be hurt by what has been done to you or someone you love can be enough to start you on a journey towards peace. For example:

  • I acknowledge that you were drunk when you crashed the car and I'm not going to let the memory of the accident hurt me anymore.


  • I feel sad that I didn't visit you in hospital and I'm sorry.

The expression of a significant emotion

  • Julia, I am devastated that you weren't there to guide me through the final stages of my thesis because I so admired your academic brilliance.

These ideas become actions when they are expressed verbally. While the expression is direct, it is not vocalised to the person involved. The reason for this when someone has died is obvious but it would also be true, say, of an ex-partner who is alive. This is becasue issuing forgiveness could be heard as an accusation:

  • 'When you said I look ugly I felt hurt and confused and I forgive you.' 'I never said that – you're always so sensitive, and anyway when you wear that dress, you do look ugly.'

You get the picture!

So, your direct communications are vocalised, in confidence, to someone who is able to hold space for you to share your forgiveness, apology and significant emotions.

For me, the question What is incomplete? has become a special pair of spectacles I wear to see with clarity and an open heart. It's not a gorilla I see cavorting amongst the dancers, but I do see and feel the panoply of emotions that accompany the dance of life and that enables me to move beyond the pain of loss.

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