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Radiologists Miss Gorilla In Lung; So What?

February 11, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Chest Radiology
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Have you heard about the radiologists who didn’t notice the gorilla in the lung?

This happened during the course of a study, as you’ve probably guessed. NPR’s Morning Edition did a segment about it this morning. Science writer Wray Herbert viewed it with alarm at The Huffington Post late last month. Virginia Hughes, another science writer, had a more measured take in a more recent National Geographic blog.

A researcher named Trafton Drew, PhD, studies attention and memory at Harvard University. About three years ago, he got interested in radiologists. Dr. Drew told NPR’s Alix Spiegel:

If you watch radiologists do what they do—I was absolutely convinced that they are, like, superhuman.

Dr. Drew was awed at radiologists’ ability to see the most minuscule anomalies in images. “These tiny little nodules that I can’t even see when people point to them—they’re just in a different world when it comes to finding this very, very hard-to-find thing.”

But Dr. Drew remembered the famous “invisible gorilla” video from a few years ago. Viewers are told to count how many times a group of people wearing white shirts pass a basketball. Half of test subjects don’t notice a person in a gorilla suit who ambles in halfway through the short video, beats his chest, then strolls off. People focused on a challenging task narrow their focus and block out distractions, leading to something called “inattentional blindness.”

So Dr. Drew asked 24 radiologists to do a typical lung cancer screening using CT scans of five patients. Among the 239 images from the fifth patient, the researchers inserted five consecutive scans that included a small picture of a person in a gorilla suit.

Only four of the radiologists noticed the gorilla. But at least they did better than a control group of 25 adults with no medical training. None of the non-radiologists saw the gorilla.

An article about this study is in press at Psychological Science. Meanwhile, some sectors of the blogosphere have chimed in with their own non-peer reviews. “There is no way around the main finding,” fretted Herbert, “which is that 83 percent of these highly trained physicians missed what might have been a life-threatening anomaly.”

Yeah, the potentially deadly “gorilla lung.” Lot of that going around lately.

Frankly, the radiologists had the right reaction when they learned about the gorilla. “They just thought it was funny,” Dr. Drew said.

As Hughes wrote, “Let’s say more of the experts had noticed the gorilla. That would necessarily mean that they weren’t as focused on the task they were instructed to perform: find the cancer.”

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