RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

Spotting the Gorilla…

I am student of psychology.  Not enrolled.  Never been to college or uni.  But I like reading about it.  I like thinking about it, and even though I am a ‘bear of small brain’, sometimes some things get through.

And it’s good to stretch your mind.  Of course, in my case, it’s a big stretch for a bloke with a CSE Grade III in Metalwork.

Anyway, I was reading a magazine that one blog reader had very kindly sent out to me, and in it was an article about perception and observation.  There was the story of the great study carried out a few years ago regarding counting the number of times a basketball is thrown from one person to another, and whilst you are counting them, something else happens that you either see or don’t see.  It involves a gorilla.  Apparently 50-60% of people are concentrating on the task in hand so much that they don’t see a bloke dressed in a gorilla suit walk calmly through the people passing the ball back and forth, turn to face the camera, beat it’s chest and then walk calmly off screen.

Tell people that something is going to happen and more people see the big gorilla, but tell them to watch for a gorilla and still count, then people see both.  Apparently, the brain can’t cope with seeing two things if it hasn’t been told to look for them both.  But tell it to look for two things or even more, and it’ll be fine thank you very much.

So what? you say.  This is a blog about an RAFairman.  Who, right now, is in Afghanistan.  What has a bloke in a monkey suit got to do with anything about that?

Well, actually loads.  It’s all about patrolling.  The biggest threat out here is, of course IEDs.  The threat of them is ingrained at all stages of all the training we did to get out here.  It was re-enforced when we arrived in theatre by a several days of training on IED awareness – looking for ‘ground-sign’ to see the ‘absence of the normal and the presence of the abnormal’. 

And then you have to remember that you might also be talking to someone on a radio, you might be watching the movement of a group of men who seem to be following you.  You might be tracing the route of a car that has passed by your patrol, or you might just be looking for a way across a field that has been flooded by local farmers so the soil softens and they can dig it over.

All sort of things going on.

So, being told to look for something isn’t exactly helpful.  There is so much going on that you might miss the one important thing that might save your life – or at least your legs – simply by not being tuned to it and not being able to take it all in.  You miss the gorilla, even though it is clearly there.

But to be told to look for exactly what might be there is helpful.  More than helpful.  If your mind is tuned to look for more specific things that show that something unexpected may happen, then your mind will be more likely to see them. 

So that is what you do.  You look for the minute changes in the soil and the ground along the route you are going to walk.  You look for specific things that might lead you to think an IED layer has been there before you.  I’m not going to say exactly what we look for, but there are things that, if you know about them, show that someone might have been messing with the ground, and messing in a bad way.

But that’s not all we do.  Although the proviso of looking for the ‘absence of the normal and the presence of the abnormal’ is a good one, looking at the overall atmospherics of a place is a good start.  Looking for a few kids on the corner of the road is better.  If there are some kids there then you have a better feeling that a bad thing isn’t going to be there.  If you see that a road has had someone digging in it then the hairs on the back of your neck should be sticking up – after all the local council is unlikely to be doing gas repairs round here.  If, the kids aren’t knockng about and, in the words of a 1950’s B-Western, ‘It’s quiet – TOO quiet’ then there is normally something wrong.

And so whilst it is more to think about when you are out on patrol, especially when the weight in your daysack starts to bite into your shoulders through your body armour and your feet are burning from the heat of the trail, it is something that you eventually start to think about subconsciously.

On my first patrol I was bricking it.  I felt almost overwhelmed by it all.  I had been in the Check Point for just 2 hours and all of a sudden I was standing at the gate ready to go out of the wire for the first time.  I was filled with the thoughts of IEDs everywhere and that the bad guys were going to be watching us and they would be lying in a ditch with their fingers on the trigger of a command wire ready to blow us – ME – to kingdom come, and did I have the right stuff in my day sack?  Did I have enough ammo?  Was my med kit easy to get to?

But as I wandered round the first corner heading along the road that led from the check point to the local village I suddenly realised that…hey, there is a bunch of kids there.  Over there is a load of animals.  In that field is a group of guys actually farming.  This is not too bad.  If all these people an things are here, then there aren’t going to be any IEDs…because the locals know if the bad guys have planted something to try and get us.

So you can relax a tiny bit and you can watch for other things.  You can open your perception up a little more, and the more you go out, the more you get used to it all and you keep those things in your mind, but you can concentrate on other things too.  Your subconscious starts to look after you and look for the ground-sign…and for the atmospherics of a situation, where suddenly there are no kids or animals or that road junction just doesn’t feel right, then your ‘Spidey-sense’ has become attuned and you suddenly switch your attention.

But my point is, even though the thoughts of IEDs are always there when you go out, they are not always at the forethought of your mind.  Cos if they were, then you’d never go out.  Each time you do, looking for the ground-sign goes a bit more into your subconscious and less of the conscious.  You are always switched on, but in a slightly different way. 

It does mean, though, that at times the war we fight out here isn’t just a physical one.  It’s a mental one, where, between us and the enemy, we are fighting a war to spot and hide IEDs.  Most of the times we are winning it, and far, far more IEDs are seen, confirmed and destroyed than are not seen and are set off killing or maiming someone.  But sometime some do get through.  A previous blog post of mine is testament to just that.

Of course some people are better at spotting signs than others.  Some are quickly attuned to it, some have that ‘Spidey-sense’ from minute one.  Some people just have some sort of ju-ju that means they can spot something wrong straight away…and these people are often chosen to be the lead man in a patrol.  And it’s a hell of a responsibility being that lead man.  I’ve done it just once, and even though it was in a relatively safe area, close to the Check Point, it still made my mouth go a bit dry and my heartbeat quicken slightly.

But knowing what to look for, rather than just to think that something – anything – could happen means that even a bear of small brain can spot the gorilla just that little bit easier.


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6 thoughts on “Spotting the Gorilla…

  1. Shona Alford on said:

    Yet another brilliant insightful blog! Well done and stay safe x

  2. Kate on said:

    My former professor liked to walk into the lab wearing a gorilla suit to see how long it would take the [new] students to notice. Always priceless when they did eventually, but they never fell for it twice :D. Excellent post, stay safe x

  3. to have handle all that and heat stress etc day in day out,you blokes are sure earning your keep.you have my admiration.

  4. ATC Padré Nick Rutter on said:

    Psalm 121 is already one of my favourites as it begins: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help? …” from many years of pleasure in the Lake District fells. And it ends with this phrase, which so fits your blog: “The Lord will preserve your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and for evermore.” Amen to that!
    God bless.

  5. Ralph Gierens on said:

    I just read this post and it sent shivers up my spine. I did a year in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne and we patrolled a lot. It’s just as described in the post. Watching the locals. Learning to spot what’s out of place. All of it. Great job describing what it’s really like. Stay safe my friend.

  6. The original video of the basketball and gorilla.

    First time I watched this I didn’t see the gorilla. But if you know its there you WILL see it.

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