What song is that? I asked.
It was a scorcher of a day in July and my husband was crouched under the open hood of his pick-up, doing whatever it is men do under there. He was singing something in his smooth yet comic baritone.
Marshmallow World, he answered, ducking back down into the truck and before carrying on with the tune.
It’s a marshmallow world in the winter
When the snow comes to cover the ground.
You’re making that up, I said. No such song.
He insisted this was indeed an old Dean Martin tune. I insisted it wasn’t. Our debate re-surfaced sporadically over the next six months, with him breaking into occasional song, and me maintaining that his silly lyrics were surely a work of fiction.
It's a yum-yummy world made for sweethearts
Take a walk with your favorite girl.
Then, came Christmas.
Suddenly, Marshmallow World was everywhere: I heard it on my car radio and in the dentist’s office; there were Muzak versions in elevators, malls and grocery stores; it popped up on TV commercials and in old movies. Every time it played my husband would look over at me with a smug smile. Told ya.
According to Wikipedia, the song was written in 1949 and has since been covered by no fewer than three dozen artists—everyone from Bing Crosby in 1950 to The Regrettes in 2016. Dean Martin did it in 1966, and my husband in 2018.
Even at a conservative estimate of, say, three times per year, I’ve let this song go in one ear and straight out the other over 150 times. I find it deeply unsettling to realize that I’d never noticed it until now.
Psychologists say I’m not alone in suffering from such poor perception. It’s human nature, they tell us, to tune out lots of information, especially the mundane and repetitive stuff, because we can only process so much into memory at any time. While some of us are better able to manage input than others—some of us have a wider working memory—we’re all prone to what psychologists call “inattention blindness”.
In a brilliant proof of inattention blindness, researchers at the University of Illinois developed The Monkey Business Illusion. This is a short video that focuses viewers so intently on what six performers are doing on stage, that most of them fail to notice a man in a gorilla suit as he walks across the stage, stopping midway to pound on his hairy chest.
I showed the video to my friends and family, and three people out of 30 saw the gorilla. Let me re-state that, in case you’re not paying attention: Ninety percent of my friends missed a gorilla. On stage. Pounding his chest.
(You can watch the video here. Share it with your friends.)
We could consider this just an odd little quirk of human experience—Oh, those goofy brains of ours! At it again! But when the blindness affects how we view and interpret the natural world, then those of us with a conservation mindset realize we have a big problem on our hands.
Responsible stewardship means paying close attention to the ecosystems in our care. If we have any hope of putting effective conservation measures into practice, then we need to notice not only the plants and animals, but how they relate to each other; when they do what they do; how often they do it and why; we need to see—really see—what’s in the air and underfoot.
To fully understand a woodlot, an ecosystem, or a planet, then it’s our duty to notice not just the little things, but all the things. We’re called upon to see the gorilla, and to notice everything going on around him too.
What’s more, we need to notice change—some of which is so insidiously slow it’s almost impossible for us to register. Try looking back in your own distant memory, going all the way back to your childhood, and comparing every little detail of the way things were with the way things are today.
What were the bees like when you were a kid? What time of year were they most active and what plants did they visit? What kinds were more common—Mason bees? Honeybees? Bumblebees? How hot were the summers and how cold were the winters? How thick was the ice on your grandparents’ pond?
Don’t lie and say you remember. You didn’t even see the gorilla.
Now if you’ve jumped on the recent “mindfulness” bandwagon or resolved in the New Year to spend less time staring at your cell phone, then you’re that much closer to becoming more observant, more engaged in the world around you. Good for you!
But the realization that our quirky brains miss out on so much—that we’re in effect pre-programmed to filter the gorilla out—serves to remind us of the importance of science in general, and of data collection in particular.
In case you don’t notice all the raptors rocketing along the Kittatinny Ridge in migration, that’s okay! Organized hawk watches dating back nearly 100 years mark not only how many birds pass overhead, but when and what kinds. The mass of collected data now sheds light on almost every major ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere.
If you don’t trust your memory to track the subtle changes brought on by shifting climate, no worries! NASA has global temperature records going back to the 1800s, plus decades’ worth of data on sea levels, snow cover, and glacial movement. Ice cores collected from Antarctica reveal atmospheric carbon levels over the past 800,000 years.
NASA goes one better, inviting community scientists (like you!) to contribute to datasets on everything from penguins to artificial intelligence, mosquitoes to stardust. Participating in these projects doesn’t just add valuable insight into real and valuable science projects, but it wakes us up to our world, and focuses our attention.
And once that happens—once our awareness has been harnessed—we have a hard time not noticing. Once we see the gorilla, it’s impossible not to notice him anymore.
So, let’s focus, people! For the sake of the planet we share, let’s work harder to take notice of the big things, the little things, and all the things in between. Let’s put down our phones and tune in to what’s going on around us. Let’s engage with nature in a meaningful way.
It’s a marshmallow world out there after all, and one that deserves our full attention.