5 Freaky Things Your Brain Does (That You Never Notice)
Brains are weird, as shown by the fact that we wrote this entire article while distracted by the thought of getting a pet sloth, even though we know we don't have the space and it violates city municipal code 52-D. Our understanding of our own minds has come a long way from the days when any abnormalities were diagnosed as "Satan, maybe? Here, have some laudanum." But much of what we've learned has just baffled us further. So here are some incredible facts about sloths ...
Your Brain Trusts Your Eyes More Than Your Hands
Let's say that you're eating a sandwich (if you're not, please go make one so that this analogy is more compelling). Eating a sandwich is, on a technical level, a complicated process. You have to aim your hand, pick up the sandwich without crushing or dropping it, and deliver it to your mouth without spilling its delicious contents. It sounds simple because you do it often, but if you've suffered brain damage, or are an idiot baby, then there's going to be lettuce and turkey all over the floor. It only feels routine because your brain is doing most of this automatically. You don't have to consciously remind yourself to orient your hand in the right direction for optimal lunch acquisition; your brain handles it based on the visual information it's receiving.
So here's where it gets weird. A study asked participants to hold sticks with a weight hanging off one side, then asked them to judge which side was heavier. This was an easy task, even when the participants were asked to close their eyes, because the study was not performed on puppies or corpses. But then participants were asked to determine the heavier side when looking at an image of the stick that was reflected with mirrors, and their aptitude completely vanished. It didn't matter that they were physically holding the stick. Their brains went with what their eyes were telling them, even if what their eyes were telling them contradicted what their hands said.
The researchers then explained the mirror trick to the participants, but that didn't help at all. Even though people consciously knew that the image they were looking at was being manipulated, their brains still made the wrong call because what was wrong felt right. Which sounds like the premise of a bad country song, not the motivations of the glob of meat that makes us sentient.
This isn't really a problem, because unless you're an action movie character, you're not often forced to navigate an elaborate mirror maze. Whenever jerk scientists aren't trying to trick your brain, making automatic judgments based on your vision is a good call, because it works 99% of the time. But this is a good demonstration of how much we rely on our brains to handle countless little tasks on autopilot so that we can focus our conscious brainpower on the big picture, like getting angry about TV shows on Twitter.
Your Brain Has An Ingrained Clockwise Bias (And It Affects How You Make Out)
We're going to talk about kissing here, so grab your partner (or another sandwich, if you're single). Brains, as you hopefully already know, have two hemispheres. And while the idea that people are either right-brained creatives or left-brained logicians is a vastly oversimplified myth, many of the brain's functions are indeed crammed into one hemisphere, such as language skills mostly being the domain of the left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere handles spatial awareness.
A less-obvious consequence of this is that by studying how people interpret various asymmetric lines and angles, we (well, smart scientists, not us) can determine that most people have a bias for seeing clockwise orientations. You can notice this from birth, as most babies initially prefer to start turning their heads to the right. Only a few like looking left, and even fewer attempt to spin their heads around Exorcist-style.
This bias doesn't really change your daily life, but it does have weird implications. More than two-thirds of people will turn their head to the right when going in for a kiss, and this holds true in studies across both the Western world (where we routinely see idealized, carefully planned romantic kisses in pop culture) and conservative Bangladesh (where you have to censor it onscreen). Those right-tilters are likely to right-handed, while the left-tilting minority are likely left-handed.
Most romantic partners will happily adjust to an unexpected left-tilt kiss, but the point is that despite radically different values across societies, kissing appears to be a behavior that's hardwired into a specific chunk of our brains. You may now explore this phenomenon by making out with your sandwich.
If Asked To Associate Vowels With Colors, Different People Tend To Pick The Same Ones
If we asked you whether the word "baa" sounds red or green, your first instinct would be to assume that we were high again. But your second instinct would be to answer red, assuming that you're in the vast statistical majority found by a study of 1,000 people.
Participants were asked to connect 16 vowel sounds (like the o in "boot" and the o in "bot") with whatever color came to mind. And 200 of the participants had been diagnosed with synesthesia, the condition whereby the stimulation of one sense inadvertently triggers another -- so that, for example, the number "4" is associated with a certain color, texture, or sound. Synesthesia is tough to measure because of biases in self-reporting caused by complicated subject matter and some people wanting to have a quirky claim about themselves to put on their dating profiles, but 1 in 25 people genuinely having it is a good rough estimate.
So synesthetes were heavily over-represented in this study by design. And rather than one saying, "I think 'meet' sounds blue," while another said, "Well, I think 'meet' sounds red, you absolute rube," they demonstrated a strong correlation between specific sounds and colors. Non-synesthetes also produced the same correlations, just less strongly, and the vowels that sounded the most similar received similar colors.
For example, the similar-sounding "ee" and "ay" got the same color, while the more disparate "aa" and "oo" were assigned different colors. To most people, there were clear groups of vowels that were blue, groups that were red, and groups that were green, with no transitions like a wishy-washy purply vowel. Studies have also found that higher-pitched sounds are associated with lighter colors, so the red of "baa" will look lighter if you jab the person saying it with a pin.
But what the hell does this all mean? That remains to be seen across the course of many more studies, but there are some interesting questions raised here. One possibility is that synesthetes are better than the rest of us at perceiving subconscious associations created by sounds and languages. There is good evidence that those associations exist. Have a look at these two blobs, for example:
Which of those blobs would you name Kiki, and which would you dub Bouba? 95% of people, across multiple languages, think the image on the left should be Kiki, because the name sounds sharp, while "Bouba" sounds rounded. In the Western world, we also associate high-pitched sounds with small things (like a mouse) and low-pitched sounds with large things (like elephants). In China, that phenomenon is reversed, possibly because in Chinese theater, a high pitch is used to signal power. So we do relate words to concepts, in part naturally and in part thanks to cultural influences. Colored vowels might be an especially weird subconscious version of that, because our brains are squishy computers with no instruction manual.
The Mind Has A Hidden Censor, And We're Not Sure How Powerful It Is
Despite the fact that your brain is probably hopping between half a dozen subjects even as you read this (like sexy sandwiches, how great sloths are, etc.), it does have finite processing power. You already knew this on some level, because we've all had someone startle us when we were focused on studying, playing video games, or reading an internet article on brain stuff at work. We have to be able to concentrate on tasks. Otherwise, every random sight and sound would prevent us from ever accomplishing anything. But how exactly does this filter work?
In one famous study, a video of people passing a basketball around had a clip of a girl walking with an umbrella superimposed over it. If you were watching the video for no particular reason, then the woman was an obvious oddity, but 79% of people tasked with counting the number of passes failed to notice her. But it's not merely that our brains are selective; it's that they're selective about being selective.
Other studies have found that you're far more likely to be distracted by potentially violent or sexual imagery (like an angry dog, or a sexy dog) than by more mundane interruptions, because "Oh crap, I might get eaten!" and "Oh crap, I might get laid!" are valuable, high-priority reactions that are hardwired into our brains, while "Huh, that guy is wearing a weird shirt" isn't important enough to shift our focus from whatever the task at hand might be. But how does your brain distinguish between the dogs that are sufficiently angry and the ones that aren't? It's not a conscious decision; you're only aware of the angry dog because your brain drew your attention to it in the first place.
This is a huge question that isn't going to get a definitive answer anytime soon, but some interesting studies have poked around the criteria used by your brain's screening process. One test used special goggles to rapidly project a letter to one eye and a number to the other to see which the participant's brain would focus on. It found that motivation had a huge impact. People told that they would get a reward for seeing numbers saw more numbers, and the people rewarded for letters saw letters.
In another study, a modern version of the basketball-passing video was created, presumably without the crotch-enhancing short-shorts of previous generation. White women were asked to look at online profiles of men to judge them as either potential neighbors and co-workers, or potential friends and dates. That task was then interrupted with a "concentration test" of basketball pass-counting. This time, either a white man or a black man was given a superimposed stroll. The women in the middle of judging potential neighbors and co-workers noticed the two men equally, but the women keeping an eye out for the more intimate friends and dates noticed the white man twice as often as the black man. We're still subjected to biases that emphasize our own race when intimacy is on the line.
Please note that the takeaway here isn't "White women are secretly racist!" but rather "Human beings experience an endless bombardment of sensory stimulation that's filtered by an unconscious brain using a process that we don't fully understand, but that we do know is prone to both countless natural biases and culturally ingrained ones that we also don't fully understand." So get mad accordingly.
Our Brains Keep Positive Memories Around While Letting Negative Memories Fade
In a subject that's been studied formally since the '30s, and less formally by stoners since time began, people across generations and cultures are prone to fading affect bias, which sees bad memories fade faster than positive ones. So you're more likely to remember and enjoy memories of last year's fun trip to Disney World than you are to recall and feel bad about the headache you got from hearing the Small World song for the 5,000th time while paying $17 for the world's tiniest cup of froyo.
The most recent study on FAB asked 562 participants from ten countries to dredge up a variety of positive and negative memories from their lives in as much detail as possible. They were then tested on these memories after some time had passed. The positive memories could be recalled in more detail and prompted positive emotional reactions, while the negatives were fuzzier and tended to be shrugged off as inconsequential.
One major exception is among people with severe depression, who instead struggle to recall any positive memories despite being aware, in the abstract, that good things have happened in their lives. People with only mild depression saw an even split between good memory and bad memory recall, while clinical narcissists and the clinically anxious had trouble shaking their negative memories. All of this means that FAB is associated with an emotionally stable mind capable of handling life's downturns.
Some of this appears to be because, despite what five minutes on Twitter or Reddit might imply, our positive memories tend to vastly outnumber our negative ones. If life was a relentless hellscape of despair, the species as a whole would have called it quits long ago. But this bias also seems to help us keep going when times get tough, and to recontextualize bad memories as being indirectly responsible for good ones. So instead of spending years despairing that we crapped our pants on a first date with the partner of our dreams, we instead pivot our viewpoint to appreciate that we were spotted by an agent and built an exciting new career as the star of adult diaper commercials. Most of us want the story of our lives to be positive.
Of course, this raises the question of whether we're really happy, or if our brains are just tricking us into believing that we are. We're changing or forgetting our pasts to insist that life is fine today, and might be even better tomorrow. Is that an inspirational testament to the perseverance of the human spirit, or a subtle sign that we're deluding ourselves into slogging through endless misery to fulfill our innate biological urges at the expense of our conscious minds? And to that eternal question we have one answer: Look at how ridiculously cute sloths are, you guys.
For more, check out Scott Bug: Q&A: How Our Brains Are Killing Us:
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