You would think you’d notice a gorilla wherever he is. And you probably would, if you’re not blind or mightily distracted. You would also hope you’d notice aliens crossing your lawn. And you probably would, if they matched your expectations and you had the tools to notice them. Now Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel García from the Spanish University of Cadiz suggests in ScienceDirect’s Acta Astronautica that even if they’re right here, we might be missing them because of a “cosmic gorilla effect.”
The “gorilla effect” is the famous experiment dating from 2010, proving that distraction can easily make people miss a massive ape right in front of their eyes.
Technically, the experiment tells the subject to watch people tossing a ball between them and to count how many times it’s passed. Focusing on counting, around half of observers fail to notice a person wearing a gorilla suit crossing the stage – even if he cavorts among the ball-tossers.
Maybe the same happens when we try to spot aliens. They could be right in front of our eyes, or think they’re telling us to take them to our leader, but we don’t see or hear them.
Some Earthlings amuse themselves by speculating what aliens might look like, and big-eyed humanoids with skinny fingers and phasers isn’t it. Since there’s no limit to the imagination, guesses have ranged from an advanced gel to sentient rock to octopi with spaceships.
Then there’s the unimaginable. What if the alien consists of – just for the sake of argument – some sort of dark matter, a mysterious substance (or more than one) that particle physicists think makes up much of the universe – but which we have yet to observe and identify, let alone understand? Or dark energy?
The same goes for alien signals. Who said they’d be radioing us their version of “Hail fellow well met” or David Bowie hits? They may be transmitting “dark signals,” which, like dark matter and dark energy, our machinery cannot detect. (Yet, anyway.)
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In their paper on the “problem of undetected signs of non-terrestrial life and civilizations,” authors de la Torre and García note they aren’t talking about “extraterrestrials.” And this is why: “We consider other possibilities that may arise but not fall strictly within the extraterrestrial scope,” they explain.
There could be a gorilla made of dark matter and/or energy sitting on your monitor right now. But given that we don’t know what dark matter is and cannot detect it, it could spend the rest of its life there and have kids and you wouldn’t know.
Then there’s string theory, which can lead to whole new directions of thinking about non-Earth life, they suggest.
Prejudices aside and our predilection for carbon-based life, our limitations on observing aliens include our neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness, say the authors. We think of other intelligent beings through our prisms.
Perhaps not usefully, but intriguingly, the Spanish scientists devised an experiment they ran on 137 people. They were tasked with distinguishing aerial photographs with man-made structures like buildings and roads from pictures with natural elements such as mountains and rivers – and yes, dear reader, they put a “tiny character disguised as a gorilla” into one of the pictures.
Some did notice it, though interestingly the people assessed to be relatively intuitive as opposed to “rational and methodical” were more observant of the ersatz beast.
“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 us not perceiving the gorilla,” stresses the researcher, who insists: “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.”
And let’s not even get into the possibility of other life forms in alternative universes.
There’s the opposite problem, too: seeing aliens where there are none (or at least none that we have noticed). That face on Mars or Occator, a crater on the dwarf planet Ceres. When we look at Occator, our slavish minds see a triangle with a square inside and think “artificial.” It probably isn’t.
If we transfer this to the problem of searching for non-terrestrials, our current cognitive constraints may not enable us to perceive them. That is an example of the cosmic gorilla effect.
And they might not notice us. Our attempts to communicate with other species would be futile if they can't recognize our signals.
The authors also posit three types of intelligent civilization based on five factors: biology, longevity, psychosocial aspects, technological progress and distribution in space.
An example of Type 1 civilizations is ours, which could die out if it mishandles technology or abuses planetary resources, or from disaster. If they survive, they could become Type 2, characterized by longevity and advanced physics, and have interstellar travel.
The third type of intelligent civilization would be eternal beings capable of creating in multidimensional spaces and multiverses. They would also presumably, unlike us, understand what dark energy and matter are.