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Sunday 24 Jun 2018

Booking Jesus
David Simmonds

Have you ever had the embarrassing experience of barging into the grocery store, so determined to get to the pickles that are on special this week, that you walk right past an acquaintance that is trying to make eye contact and exchange a few pleasantries? Oh, you mean it‘s just me? What do you mean? You can’t get that excited about pickles.


Study suggests passport officers make many mistakes.

Constant reminders of our less than perfect visual perception skills confront us every day. I recently read of a study involving German passport officers. Even expert passport inspectors make mistakes. An imposter, with a similar face and haircut to the individual on the passport photograph presents the passport make it past an inspector twenty-five per cent of the time.

The classic example of the limits of observational skills is the famous gorilla study, often cited in pop psychology books and once an internet sensation. Study subjects view a video and told to look for how many times a white shirted person passed a basketball. Shortly after the start of the video, a woman in a gorilla suit wanders on to the scene, faces the camera and thumps her chest. Yet about half the viewers of the video when interviewed after watching the video said they had not seen the gorilla or her.

Just to be sure, the experimenters then tried a ‘reverse gorilla’ experiment. This time, the viewers were primed to look for the woman in the gorilla suit. They noticed her all right, but they were oblivious to other events, such as background colour changes.

Then things took a more serious turn. The researchers focussed on a 1995 criminal case, in which a police officer had been chasing a suspect and ran right past an altercation involving other police officers and, therefore, did nothing to assist his colleague. He claimed that he was so fixated on chasing the suspect that he didn’t notice the altercation. The oblivious police officer faced charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. A conviction followed, quickly.


Research to the rescue.

The researchers decided to test the defence theory. They recreated the scene, even staging a fight for participants to run past. Yes, a good half of the subjects failed to observe the ‘fight.’

The name the experts give to this shortfall is “inattentional blindness.” We focus on one thing so much we fail to see other obvious people or events. The implications are far reaching. One shudders, for example, to think about the reliability of eyewitness evidence given in court years after an event.

Can we minimise inattentional blindness? Yes, it appears, you can train your brain to improve and lessen inattentional blindness. If you ask Amy Herman, the author of the book, Visual Intelligence: sharpen your perception, change your life, you can best do that by spending some time in galleries and museums looking at paintings. Ms Herman, a lawyer, art historian and museum director, knows whereof she speaks. Police across America, as well as medical professionals, are signing up for her courses and she is an in-demand speaker.

Looking at a painting, Ms. Herman argues; taking in all the nuances and details, in the work, can be helpful training for examining a crime scene. As a Texas police chief put it, “Some of the works of art … we wouldn’t notice the details. And we’re supposed to be professional observers.”

The full articulation of what you see and don’t see, in a painting, can help you recall what more factual detail and improve information exchange among investigators. It also helps reveal when simple observation drifts off into loaded personal interpretation, which might help avoid the premature adoption of a theory of the crime.


Booking Jesus for theft.

Ms Herman recalls asking officers to view the El Greco painting, “The Purification of the Temple,” which depicts an angry person casting out the moneylenders from the temple. One officer said, “We have an emotionally disturbed person here.” Another stated, “I’d collar the guy in pink .... Because it’s clear that he’s causing all the trouble.” Friend, you just booked Jesus.

What is the take home from this little epistle? Next time I barge past you in the grocery store, don’t assume I’m after pickles. It could be prunes.

 

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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