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I was talking to a friend recently about scams and conmen. Our conclusion was that anyone who says ‘it would never happen to me’ is deluding themselves.  The thing with conmen is that they know how to deflect your attention from what they’re up to, and so this idea that you’ll always be as alert as you think you are now to the trouble looming round the corner is wishful thinking. Our conversation was just idle banter and comparing experiences and half-remembered things about psychology.

But it turns out there’s a whole field here in psychology called  ‘change blindness’  – the phenomenon whereby people are seemingly unable under certain conditions to detect even large  changes in what they’re  looking at.  The experiment in the video shows just how extreme this effect can be – and that’s under relatively normal circumstances. What happens is so absurd, I burst out laughing – yet 75% of people didn’t notice, and I bet I’d be in that 75%.

What interests me is the related phenomenon of ‘change deafness’ – the likelihood that we won’t notice major changes in sound. An article in Current Biology in 2005  (Directed Attention Eliminates ‘Change Deafness’ in Complex Auditory Scene) suggests that in a complex auditory setting (i.e. where there are lots of sounds and sound sources) we only overcome ‘change deafness’ by directing attention to one source at a time. The concluding sentence goes like this: “Whatever the mechanisms, our results indicate that auditory perception is limited by attention and that our experience of a rich and detailed auditory world may be largely illusory.”

As I’m fond of saying, so much for multitasking. Next time someone says to you ‘I am listening’ while they’re doing something or trying to hold another conversation with someone on the phone, you can more even more justified in disbelieving them.  But what really interests me about this is the implications it might have for dance teaching. There’s a certain kind of teacher that manages to speak with the music, so that their voice becomes part of the music, another line. In doing so, they draw attention to the music. Even if there’s residual noise in the room, or from an adjacent studio, they’re still pulling the dancers towards the music and vice versa:  if they don’t do this, then teacher’s voice & the music become competing signals, and it will be hard for dancers to take much notice of either.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist