8 ordinary things you don’t realise are messing with your brain
Ever walk into a room with some purpose in mind, only to completely forget what that purpose was? Turns out, doors themselves are to blame for these strange memory lapses. Psychologists at the University of Notre Dame have discovered that passing through a doorway triggers what’s known as an event boundary in the mind, separating one set of thoughts and memories from the next. Your brain files away the thoughts you had in the previous room and prepares a blank slate for the new locale.
If you can’t concentrate during the irritating sound of a truck reversing, blame the brain baffle on an evolutionary glitch. Natural sounds are created from a transfer of energy (say, a stick hitting a drum) and gradually dissipate, and our perceptual system has evolved to use that decay of sound to figure out what made it and where it came from. But beeps don’t typically change or fade away over time, so our brains have trouble keeping up.
We walk in circles when we traverse terrain devoid of landmarks, such as the desert. Even though we’d swear we’re walking in a straight line, we actually curve around in loops as tight as 20 metres in diameter. German research from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics reveals why: with every step a walker takes, a small deviation arises in the brain’s balance (vestibular) or body awareness (proprioceptive) systems. These deviations accumulate to send that individual veering around in ever-tighter circles. But they don’t occur when we can recalibrate our sense of direction, using a nearby building or mountain, for instance.
We say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, but unfortunately, our brains tend to do just that. In what’s known as the ‘halo effect’, a single positive quality in a person can dupe our brain into thinking that person has many good qualities, even if we don’t know them at all. For instance, when we find someone physically attractive, we may also automatically have the impression that he or she is smart, kind, funny, etc. This is by far the most common example of the ‘halo effect’, to the extent that the effect is also known as ‘the physical attractiveness stereotype’. This has a lot to do with celebrities, and why we feel like we ‘know’ them when we really don’t.
Being up high
For many people, being at a certain height, especially for the first time, creates a surreal sensation of detachment. This is known as the ‘breakaway phenomenon’. “You feel as if you’re disconnected from the Earth, literally, even though you’re in a building or an aeroplane,” says Dr James Giordano, a neurology and biochemistry professor at Georgetown University Medical Center. Though some experience this sensation at the top of a tall building, or on a balcony, it’s most commonly felt while flying. This sensation is totally separate from fear of heights; in fact, it makes some people feel very calm and peaceful. “Some people actually enjoy the way that feels; others, it makes them uncomfortable,” says Dr Giordano.
That one time you ate bad chicken
If you’ve ever wondered why one bad experience can ruin something for you, blame your brain. A single unpleasant experience with food, in particular, can taint the taste of that food in your mind, even if you actually really enjoy it. This is known as the ‘Garcia Effect’, because of a scientist named Dr John Garcia who tested it on rats. If you experienced nausea or sickness shortly after eating something (whether or not the food itself is what made you sick), you’ll likely develop what’s known as a taste aversion to that food. This triggers your brain to be hesitant about consuming it again, even if it’s a food you love. Unsurprisingly, this occurs frequently with a certain type of alcohol or even a non-alcoholic mixer.
Though they seem straightforward, arrows have the potential to trip up our brains quite a bit. They can distort our perceptions of distance, direction and length; in fact, two popular optical illusions use arrows to trick the mind. One is the ‘Muller-Lyer illusion’, which takes three lines of equal length and uses arrowheads to make them appear different lengths. The other, the ‘Flanker task’, is more interactive; it shows you a screen with several arrows on it and makes you select the direction that the middle arrow is pointing. (It’s harder than it sounds!) The arrows that are not in the centre are ‘irrelevant stimuli’, distracting your brain by pointing in different directions.
Salespeople can fool your brain into thinking you want a product you really don’t. According to Dr Deborah Searcy of Florida Atlantic University, retailers use this sneaky trick all the time: they tell you the price of an item and try to get you to buy it. If you say that price is too much, they’ll offer you a lower one. Because your mind has been ‘anchored’ around the higher price, you think you’re getting a great deal, and you’re more likely to buy the item. But, if the salesperson had offered you the lower price right off the bat, chances are you wouldn’t have bought the product. Your brain is duped by the allure of a good deal.
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