In a famous psychology experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video in which six people pass basketballs back and forth. Three of the people in the video wore white shirts, three wore black. The subjects were asked to keep a silent count of the number of passes made by people wearing white shirts. In the middle of all this, a person in a gorilla suit wanders through the scene, spending nine seconds on screen, even facing the camera and pounding its chest. Surprisingly, half of the subjects never even noticed the gorilla, so intent were they on their counting task. I have to admit, I would have expected to be one of the noticers.
On my way to an appointment this evening with a few minutes to burn beforehand, I stopped in the library to return some books and pick up another one. As I walked in, I noticed the table with free masks and wondered for a moment if we were required to wear them in here, or if it was just strongly encouraged. I decided to follow the adage that it’s always better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, but I glanced around and noticed a few other maskless people, which reassured me that I wouldn’t become a martyr for the Free Face movement. I went over to the hold rack, picked up my book, and then went across the room to the new non-fiction shelves. While browsing around, I saw a couple come in with a young girl, maybe four or five. Also maskless, I noticed. Soon, the girl’s squeals of excitement vaguely disrupted my laser focus on book titles, and I glanced up and saw it — an actual Triceratops skeleton, right there in the middle of the floor, mere feet away from the hold rack where I had just been. There’s a new natural history museum being built nearby, and we had read that the library would become the temporary home of the Triceratops in the meantime. The Lady of the House had even said to me, a mere fifteen minutes earlier as I left the house, to “see if the Triceratops is in the library yet!” Yes, dear, go to my appointment, pick up a few things at the grocery store, check on the dinosaur skeleton, uh-uh, gotcha.
As a kid, I was, like many kids, a dinosaur nut. I’ve only been to the Smithsonian’s natural history museum maybe four or five times in my life, certainly not often enough to become jaded by the presence of the mortal remains of a giant horned animal the size of a tank. Assuming that some part of my subconscious mind was aware of the skeleton and recognized it as such, rather than just another one of the pointless sculptures that typically adorn public properties, how was I not arrested by the sight? How quickly we become habituated to the most incredible things! A dinosaur stands before me, and all I’m noticing is the presence or absence of a fabric rectangle on people’s faces. This is why we can’t have nice things.