The Invisible Gorilla and...TMS?, by Peter Zafirides, MD

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An image of Practitioner Peter Zafirides
Practitioner Peter Zafirides

3 June 2011

Would you believe an Invisible Gorilla has much to teach us about PPD/TMS?

Yes... I said an Invisible Gorilla.

No... I haven't lost my marbles.

Before you click away from this page, let me quickly explain myself.

First off, what exactly IS an Invisible Gorilla? If you are not that familiar with this now-classic, 1999 experiment on selective attention. I highly recommend taking few moments to watch this video experiment before proceeding further. It is a quick, 82-second experience that is as much fun as it is educational.

Check out it out now. I'll wait right here...

OK, how did you do? Pretty interesting video wouldn’t you agree? Let’s review this experiment a bit more in detail, because I believe there are some wonderful teaching points as it relates to PPD/TMS as well. In this study of selective attention, the researchers (Simons and Chablis) asked their test subjects to focus on a specific part of the video until the task was complete. The goal for the participants presumably, was to count the number of times a group of people passed a ball around to each other on the video. Easy enough, right? But midway through the video, the real part of the experiment begins. A man in a gorilla suit now appears onscreen and begins to walk through the group passing the ball around. He even takes a moment to stop, look at the camera and dramatically thump his chest. It’s an impossible scene to miss, right? Right?


The researchers found that because their attention was so focused in counting the number of times the ball was being passed around, over 50% of the study participants said they did not see the man in a gorilla suit in the video. Over 50% missed it!! In essence, the gorilla was “invisible” to these individuals! How is this possible? The “Invisible Gorilla” is a powerful example of the mind’s ability to focus attention. In this case, attention was so selective that something as obvious and dramatic as a man in a gorilla suit was not “seen” by a majority of individuals.

But what exactly does an Invisible Gorilla have to do with PPD/TMS?

We can use this experiment as an example to illustrate some key points about PPD/TMS. For you see, the physical symptom of pain in PPD/TMS serves the same purpose as the team bouncing the ball in the above experiment. Your unconscious emotions (anxiety, worry, anger, rage) on the other hand, are like the Invisible Gorilla. In PPD/TMS, we learn there is a functional purpose to the pain. It plays an important role.

TMS Learning Point #1: The function of physical pain in PPD/TMS is to dramatically and selectively grab your attention. In that, the purpose of pain in PPD/TMS is much like the purpose of the team passing the ball in the experiment. In PPD/TMS, physical pain draws your attention away from what the unconscious mind has determined to be a more threatening pain, namely the expression of your suppressed emotions (anxiety, anger and rage). These suppressed emotions are your “Invisible Gorilla”, if you will.

By locking in your attention (similar to the team bouncing the balls), your mind prevents you from “seeing” your emotional pain (the “invisible gorilla” phenomenon in the video experiment). Much like the Invisible Gorilla in the experiment, selective attention to PPD/TMS pain keeps your repressed emotions "invisible" from conscious awareness. In essence, it is your mind’s way of trying to protect you from a perceived threat (expression of uncontrollable emotions, like anger and rage). This however, is a very painful means of "protection".

TMS Learning Point #2: While the initial part of the pain cascade originates in the mind, PPD/TMS pain is very real pain. This is not some neurotic “trick” your mind is playing on you. Your mind will instantaneously mobilize a physiologic chain of events - in response to a potential emotional threat - that leads to actual physical pain.

Please do not despair, though. PPD/TMS is not a permanent condition! Treatment is very effective to resolve the pain - both emotional and physical - of PPD/TMS. Never, ever doubt how truly powerful you are. Through the PPD/TMS treatment process, actions like learning to forgive yourself and allowing true compassion for yourself can have a dramatic impact on the resolution of your painful symptoms. It can literally change your life. Have faith in the process. You will be successful.

Remember: In PPD/TMS, physical pain is the mind's way of trying to provide a protective distraction from potentially threatening emotions trying to break through into our conscious awareness.

In reality though, there is absolutely nothing to fear from these emotions.

They do not have to be your "Invisible Gorilla"...

Be Well,
Peter Zafirides, MD
(June 3, 2011)

DISCLAIMER: The TMS Wiki is for informational and support purposes only and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. See Full Disclaimer.