Seeing is Believing

Do you see the triangle that’s not actually there?  You see it because your mind fills it in to create something familiar.  In fact, it’s harder to un-see the triangle.

But at other times we can fail to see something that really is there, even something truly remarkable — as the following story reveals …

One cold January morning in 2007, for about forty-five minutes, in a Washington DC metro station, a man played a violin.  During that time, around two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After about three minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing.  He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule. Four minutes later, the violinist received his first dollar as a woman threw money in the hat and walked on without stopping.  For a moment a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

After the man had been playing the violin for ten minutes, a three-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly.  The boy stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time.  This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent, without exception, forced their child to move on quickly.

After forty-five minutes of continuous playing, only six people had stopped and listened for a short while. About twenty gave and the man collected a total of $32.  The man finished playing and silence took over.  No-one noticed and no-one applauded.  There was no recognition at all.

No-one knew the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the foremost musicians in the world, playing some of the most intricate pieces of violin music ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.  Two days before, Joshua Bell had sold out a theatre in Boston, where the seats averaged $100 each, for the audience to sit and listen to him play exactly the same music.

‘A man’ playing violin incognito in a D.C. metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception and habit.

[Extract from my upcoming book Another Roll of the Dice.]



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