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Focus. It has many definitions. In science, it is the point at which rays of light, heat, or sound meet after being reflected. In geology, it is the place inside the Earth's crust where an earthquake originates. For engineers working in machine vision, the camera definition is most likely familiar, and it is a combination of lens aperture and light.

When applied to the human brain, focus is defined as a center of activity, attraction, or attention, or a point of concentration.

A great deal of life advice from a great many people suggests that focus should be placed on the positive while dismissing the negative. In addition, much importance is placed on more than just a point of concentration, but an almost hyper-concentration. Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

“It was as though the gorilla was invisible.”

However, the same amount of fanfare surrounds a somewhat diametrically opposed idea, that of multi-tasking. Many revel in the notion of the opposite of hyper focus­—being able to concentrate on many things at once. It’s even become a skill that is touted on a resume.

A rather famous experiment attempts to address some aspects of hyper-concentration versus multi-tasking, The experiment is called The Invisible Gorilla. As described by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons on

Imagine you are asked to watch a short video in which six people-three in white shirts and three in black shirts-pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Would you see the gorilla?

Almost everyone has the intuition that the answer is "yes, of course I would." How could something so obvious go completely unnoticed? But when we did this experiment at Harvard University several years ago, we found that half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible.

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Chabris and Simons concluded that the experiment reveals two things, “that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much.” They also recognize that the experiment has become one of the best-known experiments in psychology, appearing in introductory textbooks and used by a host of professionals and entertainers.

Some recent studies have somewhat debunked multi-tasking, or at least attributed it to something a bit different, suggesting that our brains don’t really have the ability to concentrate on many things at once, but some of us are better at turning our concentration quickly from one task to the next and are simply better at organizing the thoughts and attention to be able to “bounce” from one task to another and back again with seemingly more ease than others. So you can keep it on your resume.

In the meantime, authors Ian R. Lazarus and Kevin Sari describe a similar exercise for their audiences learning about inspection, audits, and measurement systems. Read all about it in their article, “Inspection Software Must Itself Be Inspected,” and everything else we have to offer in this month’s Quality.

Enjoy and thanks for reading!