April 11 (UPI) -- Most people would notice a gorilla passing by -- an alien, too. Unless, of course, that person is distracted by the twinkle of a billion stars.
New research suggests our ability to spot extraterrestrial life -- should it exist -- is influenced by our own neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness.
In fact, scientists at the University of Cádiz in Spain argue what's known as the "gorilla effect" could be preventing us from identifying extraterrestrial life.
The gorilla effect refers to a famous experiment in which young people are asked to count the number of basketball bounce passes they complete. When participants focus on counting their passes, they invariably fail to notice a person dressed as a gorilla passing by.
As part of the latest research, detailed in the journal Acta Astronautica, scientists updated the gorilla effect experiment.
The scientists had participants differentiate between aerial photos featuring natural elements like mountains and rivers and aerial photos with artificial elements like buildings and roads. Tucked away in the corner of one of the images, researchers hid small gorilla-shaped figures.
"We assessed the participants with a series of questions to determine their cognitive style -- if they were more intuitive or rational -- and it turned out that the intuitive individuals identified the gorilla of our photo more times than those more rational and methodical," researcher Gabriel de la Torre said in a news release.
"If we transfer this to the problem of searching for other non-terrestrial intelligences, the question arises about whether our current strategy may result in us not perceiving the gorilla," de la Torre said. "Our traditional conception of space is limited by our brain, and we may have the signs above and be unable to see them. Maybe we're not looking in the right direction."
The psychological phenomenon known as "pareidolia," seeing something that isn't there, is sometimes referenced in discussions about the search for extraterrestrial life. But it's possible, scientists argue, that there are signals right in front of us and we're missing them.
"If this happened, it would be an example of the cosmic gorilla effect," de la Torre said. "In fact, it could have happened in the past or it could be happening right now."