CADIZ, Spain - Aliens may exist in ways we cannot even fathom and they could be all around us, but because we don't know how to detect them, we can't see what's right in front of our faces. At least that's what a group of researchers from the University of Cadiz in Spain suggested in a report published in the journal Acta Astronautica.
"Our traditional conception of space is limited by our brain, and we may have the signs above and be unable to see them," Gabriel G. De la Torre, one of the co-authors of the study, told the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT). "Maybe we're not looking in the right direction."
The research team used a classic psychological experiment to provide a possible explanation as to why we humans have not found any indication of extraterrestrial life. The theory hinges on the idea of inattention blindness, which suggests that we don't see what we aren't looking for.
Countless teachers and professors have used a video to illustrate exactly how this phenomenon works. The experiment was originally conceived and carried out by Daniel J. Simons and Christopher Chabris in 1999. They asked participants to watch the video and keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts.
(Experiment spoilers will follow the video, so if you'd like to give it a shot, do so now!)
Chabris and Simons showed the video to a group of participants at Harvard University, and the experiment went on to become one of the best-known in psychology because of its surprising outcome.
The experiment is called "The Invisible Gorilla" because a person in a gorilla suit spends nine seconds on screen -- they stroll through the video frame at one point, face the camera and thump their chest, then leave -- but half of the people who watched the video in the original experiment didn't see the gorilla at all. It was like the gorilla was invisible.
The experiment revealed that human psychology and perception aren't as foolproof as many of us would like to believe. Most people miss a lot of what's going on around them as they try to filter and process the incredible amounts of perceptual information being fed to their brains through the senses and nervous system every nanosecond of every day.
"It is very striking, but very significant and representative of how our brain works," De la Torre told FECYT.
De la Torre and co-author Manuel A. Garcia used a similar approach in their research. They asked 137 adults to take the cognitive reflection test, fill out a perception and attention questionnaire and look at aerial photographs and determine whether they featured artificial structures, like roads and buildings, or natural elements, like mountains and rivers. In one photo, De la Torre and Garcia inserted an image of a person in a gorilla suit to see if participants noticed.
Only 45 out of the total 137 participants noticed the gorilla in the aerial photograph.
"Before doing the test to see the inattentional blindness, we assessed the participants with a series of questions to determine their cognitive style--whether they were more intuitive or rational," De la Torre explained that this had interesting bearings on the study results, "It turned out that the intuitive individuals identified the gorilla in our photo more often than those more rational and methodical subjects."
De la Torre and Garcia believe that their findings and those of the Invisible Gorilla experiment point to the possibility that life beyond Earth could very well exist in a way that humans are not oriented to perceive or understand.
The team specifically avoided using the term "extraterrestrial" in writing about their findings to be able to consider other possibilities that do not fall "strictly within the extraterrestrial scope." Instead, they refer to life beyond Earth as "non terrestrial."
"When we think of other intelligent beings, we tend to see them from our perceptive and conscience sieve; however, we are limited by our sui generis vision of the world, and it's hard for us to admit it," says De la Torre. "What we are trying to do with this differentiation is to contemplate other possibilities--for example, beings of dimensions that our minds cannot grasp; or intelligences based on dark matter or energy, which make up almost 95 percent of the universe and which we are only beginning to glimpse. There is even the possibility that other universes exist, as the texts of Stephen Hawking and other scientists indicate."
De la Torre and Garcia suggest that focusing too distinctly on certain search and discovery methods, like SETI's search for radio signals, is limiting our ability to discover the "cosmic gorilla" that is non terrestrial life. Expanding search methods to include aspects of evolving modern physics may bring us closer to the truth.
"It is reasonably (sp) to think that advanced civilizations ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) or more precisely non terrestrial intelligence (NTI) will either have mastered dark matter or possibly be composed of it. A multiverse of a somewhat different kind has been envisaged within string theory and its higher dimensional extension, M-theory. These theories require the presence of 10 and 11 spacetime dimensions, respectively," the researchers argue.
Solely searching for civilizations populating other planets or solar systems may limit our ability to conceive of and potentially locate inter-dimensional capable civilizations, the research team suggests.
"We can be sure that our understanding of the cosmos depends on our brain nature, physiology, and finally our mind and consciousness...If we decide to look for signals of ETI or more precisely NTI, we have to analyze different factors regarding not only the technology to be used and the types of messages or signs themselves; however, most importantly, the human and nonhuman psychobiological participating variables," the research paper concludes.
In other words, De la Torre and Garcia think we need to first check our egos and account for the limitations of human biology and psychology before we can expect to comprehend advanced extraterrestrial or non-terrestrial life.