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A gorilla walks onto a Basketball court and nobody notices OR what Mike McQueary might not have seen

Let me get one thing out of the way right from the start: this isn't a defense or condemnation of anyone.  In fact, I'm not even going to get into what anyone should or could have done, because this post really isn't about that.  This post is really meant to address everyone who says that they know what they would have done if they were in Mike McQueary's shoes.  It's a post about how our brains and bodies don't always respond they way we think they will when we are confronted with something we didn't expect.

I recently read "Deep Survival" by Laurence Gonzales (I recommend it).  In it, Gonzales explores the factors that determine who lives and who dies in survival situations.  One of the key concepts, backed up by research, is the notion of "mental maps".  People are creatures of habit, and we tend to create an image of the world around us, a mental map, to help us more efficiently process our experiences.  Words like "image" and "map" aren't to be taken literally---its more of an expectation of what we will encounter.  This is a good thing when reality more or less matches our map.  When it doesn't, our brains can react in strange ways.

One particularly fascinating story in "Deep Survival" is of a study conducted at Harvard.  The researchers asked subjects to watch a video of basketball players and to count the number of passes they made.  At some point, a woman carrying an umbrella walked onto the court and remained visible for 5 seconds.  Afterwards, 35% of the test subjects couldn't recall seeing the woman, even though her presence was obvious to  people who weren't counting passes.  But it gets weirder.  Another group was given the same task, except this time, instead of a woman with an umbrella, a man in a gorilla suit walked onto the court.  This time, 56% of test subjects had no recollection of seeing the man in the gorilla suit, even after they were asked specifically about it.  

The test subjects created a mental map corresponding to a basketball game.  Their brains simply didn't process information that wasn't related to that mental map, and the less something fit into the map, the more easily it went unnoticed.  There are other stories about people failing to process what is right in front of their eyes: fighter pilots in-training that literally cannot hear the commands coming to them over radio on their first night-time carrier landing; experienced river guides thinking that a river is safe during a torrential downpour when there are trees floating down the river; experienced hikers that take hours, even days to accept that they are lost and to start doing what they need to do get out of the wilderness.  It can take minutes, hours, or even days to break out of the confines of our mental maps.  Sometimes, people die before that happens.

What does this all have to do with Mike McQueary?  We don't know exactly what he saw, but I think we can be pretty damn sure that it didn't fit into the mental map that he created to help guide him through that evening.  I think we can also be pretty damn sure that it didn't fit into the mental map he had of Jerry Sandusky.  People wonder why he didn't immediately call the police.  People wonder if he told Paterno the details of what he saw, and if he didn't, why he did allegedly tell them to Curley and Schultz, or why he told them to the Grand Jury.  I don't know the answers, but I do know that if people can fail to truly see a gorilla on a basketball court, that if experienced outdoorsmen can wander around in the wilderness for days before they realize that that isn't the mountain they thought it was, then it is possible that McQueary didn't really see what he saw.  It could have taken days or weeks before the fullness of it finally made its way through his brain and became able to articulate it fully.

Again, this is all speculation because we don't know all the facts.  And it isn't a defense of anyone---44% of people did see the gorilla, and plenty of hikers know when they get lost and turn around immediately.  This is all just food for thought.  It is meant to make you wonder what you, or anyone else, would do in a high stress and completely unexpected situation.  It may not be what you think, and it may not be because you were scared, or shocked, or a bad person; it might be because you're brain simply did not adequately process what you encountered.

And you know what, this post is relevant for another reason.  A lot of people have already formed a mental map of what happened at Penn State, who is guilty and innocent, what they are guilty or innocent of, and why.  And they have committed to those maps hard.  This goes for people on both sides of the fence when it comes to Mike, Joe, and others.  Regardless of what facts come out, some people may never let go of their mental maps.  To me, that's a sobering thought.

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