Friday, 5 March 2010

Kylie Minogue and the Gorilla Experiment

Kylie, gorilla
To a large extent, we see and hear what we expect to see and hear. As newborns we're hit with a tidal wave of experiential data, a screaming torrent of raw sensory information that we have to learn how to deal with, and our brains' main coping strategy is to scrunch itself up until it's found ways of shutting out most of the din.

As infants, we initially lose neurons at an alarming rate until the remaining pathways can mimic (and to some extent synchronise with and predict) external datapatterns. We construct progressively more complex predictive mental models for how the outside world works, and increasingly live within our own models. We experience what we expect to experience, unless there's such a glaring mismatch that it can't be ignored.

It's a matter of data-reduction and enhanced reaction-times. We coast along, our experience being steered by sensory data but not dictated by it. If you're sitting on a chair, you don't suddenly jolt every few seconds and exclaim, "Chair!" – once the chair's been accepted you assume that it's still there until you're told otherwise. This internal secondary reality also compensates for the significant processing delays that happen in our brains – so that we think that we experience the world in real-time – by starting to react unconsciously to our internal models' predictions, before we're consciously aware of what we've seen. We live our lives from moment to moment in a state of continual anticipation.

Sometimes random data tickles our expectation-engine – when a black bin-bag blowing in the wind in the corner of an alley momentarily triggers an expectation of seeing a black cat, we don't just interpret the movement as possibly belonging to a cat, we actually see and remember the cat (until we look a second time and realise that it's just a refuse bag, and the rogue memory gets shredded).

These models act as perception filters and error-correction filters for what our brains allow us to register as reality. Information that's not compatible with the model (or not relevant) simply doesn't register on our consciousnesses, it gets stripped out as anomalous data and jettisoned before we have a chance to become fully aware of it.

The usual example for this is the basketball experiment, conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in the 1990s, but unfortunately, if I explain what the experiment is, it'll spoil it for you. If you don't already know about it, don't read anything else about it until you've watched this video and tried to count just the number of basketball passes made my the people in the white shirts. Then read the analysis.

The Gorilla Effect is now considered a classic, but what most psychologists might not realise is that in 1991, someone had already done a large-scale version of the experiment, using the UK's music broadcasting networks.

In '91, Kylie Minogue was still widely seen as a squeaky-clean pop songstress, freshly out of Neighbours, warbling heavily-processed Stock Aitken and Waterman lyrics over generic (and slightly cheesy) SAW chunka-chunka backing tracks.And that's when someone at the Minogue team decided to slip the f-word into one of the singles, three times, to see who noticed. Nobody did.

The single was called "Shocked" and charted at number 6.

" Shocked by the power, ooh-ohh, shocked by the power of love.
You got me fucked to my very foundations, shocked by the power, shocked by the power ..."


Uncharacteristically for SAW lyrics, “fucked to my very foundations” was actually a pretty great line for a pop song. Alliterative an' everything. I'd have been proud of it. And maybe that's why someone decided to leave it in.

Whether it was an ad-lib, like Atomic Kitten's alternative “You can lick my hole again” soundcheck version of their single, I don't know. But that's the version of "Shocked" that actually got broadcast, over and over again, on TV and on the radio. In a country that was obsessed with the F-word being used on music programmes, in which the Sex Pistols had made their careers by effing on Bill Grundy's show, and Jools Holland was suspended for accidentally let it slip on a live trailer for "The Tube" in 1987, and every Madonna single was eagerly being pored over by the UK press for possible naughty words or double-entendres that people could declare themselves outraged by, la Minogue got away with repeatedly standing up on Top of the Pops [a bit after ~7pm], and apparently singing her little heart out about how she was "fucked to my very foundations", three or four times per appearance, without anyone hearing it.

If you get hold of the more recent "Ultimate Kylie" compilation, the audio's different. They've either changed the recording or used a different version in which The Kylie is definitely singing "rrucked", with a pronounced "rr" rather than "fucked", with an "ff". But go back to contemporary broadcast recordings of the single ( thanks, YouTube! ), and yep – it's different.

The "Kylie" version of the gorilla experiment might be one of the biggest mass-media psychological experiments ever to take place, but unless you can get hold of contemporary recordings of radio and TV broadcasts, you might be forgiven for thinking that it never happened.

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