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10 Mysterious Brain-Related Phenomena We’re Just Starting To Understand

by Debra Kelly
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The mind is a mysterious thing. We’ve all had our minds made up and changed. Sometimes, we get caught in a vicious cycle of circular logic, and our eyes even occasionally play tricks on us. The brain is a hard thing to study, and it’s only with relatively recent scientific advancements that we’ve been able to examine common but extremely bizarre mental phenomena. We’re all familiar with deja vu, but there are plenty of other mysterious brain-related phenomena we experience every day.

10How Does Brainwashing Work?

Brainwashing is the practice of completely changing the way a person thinks or what they believe using hostile techniques. We often hear of it being used on prisoners of war, kidnapping victims, and others that are in a position of subservience. That, in fact, is thought to be the crucial part of extreme forms of brainwashing.

The first part of brainwashing involves destroying everything that the victim believes about themselves. It’s necessary to have a clean slate upon which new thoughts, ideas, and values can be imprinted. It’s an odd combination of mental and physical abuse, along with the promise of salvation from the tormentors, that creates the ideal conditions for this manipulation. Once the broken person believes that they’re absolutely wrong in every way, they find themselves relying on the person who destroyed them to rebuild them in the right way.

There are also other types of brainwashing that are less obvious, and they happen every day. It can be argued that advertisements are designed to be manipulative and change your way of thinking. Any organization or agency that’s recruiting to their cause is swaying the public with propaganda, and even friends trying to manipulate you into doing something are participating in a mild form of brainwashing.

Little is known about how brainwashing actually works and how successful various techniques are because replicating them in a formal research setting is considered highly unethical, for obvious reasons. Most of what we know about brainwashing and its methods comes from interviewing prisoners of war, but there is still plenty up for debate, like how effective and permanent these techniques are. Studies on soldiers haven’t been able to conclusively answer these questions, but they do seem to depend greatly on a person’s concept of self and strength of character.

9Why Can’t Some People Recognize Faces?

Prosopagnosia, also called face-blindness, is a condition that leaves its sufferers unable to recognize or identify faces, even those of close friends and relatives. It can also manifest as difficulty identifying facial expressions, judging the age of a person, or making eye contact. Those who have face-blindness also have difficulties processing and recalling other types of visual memories, like identifying landmarks and recognizing inanimate objects associated with a person (such as a car or a house), and may even have difficulty in identifying animals.

For a long time, prosopagnosia was vastly misunderstood and usually thought to be a result of a traumatic head injury, but we now know that about 2 percent of the population is born with the condition. It is believed that congenital prosopagnosia is caused by a developmental defect in the part of the brain that’s responsible for filing away faces for future reference, the fusiform gyrus. Even with this improved understanding, prosopagnosia can still be difficult to diagnose because the afflicted often find other ways to compensate for their inability to recognize faces.

8How Do We Tune Out Stimuli?

The cocktail party effect is our innate ability to separate important information from background noise, such as carrying on a conversation with a single person in the middle of a loud, crowded room. This phenomenon has been difficult to study because monitoring the exact pathways of neurological response to any particular stimuli is tricky, but science is starting to make some progress.

In a quest to learn more about the phenomenon, researchers from the University of California–San Francisco placed a net of electronic sensors directly on the brains of patients who were slated to receive brain surgery for severe epilepsy. The patients were then asked to listen to a noisy conversation while computers recorded their brain activity. Researchers were not only able to determine what was being heard but show that the brain was only detecting the relevant speech patterns. Instead of filtering out other information like background conversations or music, the brain’s auditory complex simply ignored it. These findings could be helpful for treating problems associated with autism and information processing disorders, but they also suggest that our brains have long mastered what modern voice technology still can’t do: concentrate on a single input source.

7Why Do We Dream About Things We Did That Day?

This phenomenon, called the Tetris effect, is what happens when you spend so much time engaging in an activity—specifically, a repetitive activity like playing Tetris—that you find yourself dreaming about it at night. It turns out that there’s a very good reason for it, and it’s not a sign that you’re just overdoing one particular activity.

Researchers from the Harvard Medical School hypothesized that when you’re dreaming about things that you did during the day, your brain is taking advantage of the downtime associated with sleep to reinforce behaviors that were learned while you were awake. Participants in their study were told to play Tetris for several hours each day. By the second night of the experiment, most participants were reporting dreaming of the familiar falling blocks.

Researchers concluded that during the first day, the brain didn’t immediately recognize that there was a need to learn anything new, but with repeated, prolonged play, a switch was flipped that triggered heightened information processing during sleep. One group, consisting of both novices and seasoned players, showed considerable improvement from one day to the next. Another test group, comprised of people suffering from short-term memory loss, showed no improvement, suggesting that our Tetris dreams aren’t a sign of an addiction but our brains continuing to learn while the rest of us shuts down for the night.

6Why Do We See Erroneous Patterns?

Apophenia is the technical term for seeing a pattern where none actually exists. It’s what our brains are doing when we see Elvis’s face burned into a piece of toast or a water stain that looks like the Virgin Mary, and it’s why we’re able to lie in the backyard on a warm, sunny day and pick out shapes in the clouds.

The first hints about just what our brains are doing came from researching something completely different: spirit communication. Latvian psychologist Konstantins Raudive was recording what he called “spirit talk” and what the rest of the world called “static.” While other scientists were less than convinced by Raudive’s claims that he had trained himself to hear spirit communications in these recordings, they realized that what he had illustrated was our brains’ tendency to arrange and process information in a way that makes sense to us.

Our survival as a species has, in large part, relied on our ability to piece together information to create a bigger picture. That ability is so ingrained that our brains sometimes err too heavily toward pattern recognition, resulting in seeing faces in a wood grain table.

5Is Multitasking Efficient?

The ability to multitask has been much lauded in the workplace, but recent research suggests that it’s often not nearly as efficient as we think. Brain scans performed during the act of multitasking have shown that, rather than performing more than one task at the same time, people are actually just switching between different tasks. That’s created the term “task switching” in place of multitasking, although many of us are still wrapped up in the idea that doing more than one thing at a time is helping us get things done faster. In fact, thinking that we’re successfully multitasking can add up to a productivity loss of up to 40 percent during the day. You may think you’re more productive and happy, but at the end of the day, multitasking can leave people more tired and frustrated over how little they have actually accomplished.

The one time we can actually multitask is one of the times we’re least likely to realize that we’re doing it: when only one task is intellectual in nature, while another is physical. That’s why we can process the information from an audio book while we’re walking the dog. The downside of this kind of multitasking is that it severely limits our awareness of our surroundings.

4Why Doesn’t Brainstorming Work?

On the surface, brainstorming might seem like a great way to invent new ideas and come up with inventive solutions to problems, but it actually has the reverse effect of making us less creative and more likely to just hop on board with someone else’s ideas than contribute our own. There are a couple of different reasons why brainstorming just doesn’t work, but it’s mostly because people are very, very lazy.

Researchers from Texas A&M call it “social loafing,” and it’s when people sit in on a brainstorming session and either just listen to other people’s ideas or contribute some ideas of their own that are only vaguely different from those that have already been put forth. Others are hesitant to present their own ideas out of fear that they will be ridiculed by the group, especially after hearing a few well-received suggestions. It’s easier to just explain why you agree with everyone else than risk sharing your own ideas. Combined with the fact that most brainstorming sessions last much longer than our spurts of creativity, it all adds up to meetings that are supposed to be a flood of new ideas but actually just annoy people.

3Is There Such A Thing As Natural Talent?

When it comes to innate talent, we often hold conflicting ideas. On one hand, we’re told that we can be anything we want to be if we work hard enough. On the other, some people seem to be destined for their chosen field, or even a “born talent.” The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.

According to Dianna Richardson, graduate of the Juilliard School and youth instructor at Baldwin-Wallace College, there is such a thing as raw, innate, untrained talent. It manifests in young students who show the natural ability to keep rhythm and differentiate pitch, but it is absolutely encouraged by formal training. All the raw talent in the world can go unrefined without developing a person’s skills and the drive to work toward their goals.

Dedication and motivation play a huge part in talent. It’s been shown that the average time needed to become an expert at any one thing is about 10 years. Talent can be more accurately thought of not as an inclination toward a particular skill but as a group of personality traits that make a person more likely to excel in a particular field. Our personalities and outlook are always changing, and that’s one reason why some people don’t “discover” their hidden talents until they’re older. It may be only then that external factors—outside encouragement, the time to practice, finding a coach or mentor—allow for goals to be set and paths to be discovered.

2Why Do Amputees Feel Phantom Limbs?

Most amputees report feeling mild sensations or outright pain where their limbs used to be. These phantom pains are now known to be something that even non-amputees can experience on a somewhat regular basis. Have you ever had your phone in your pocket and swear you’ve felt it ring, only to look and find that no one has called you? It’s the same principle at work.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University have determined that different parts of the brain are mapped as connections to certain parts of the body, such as an arm or a leg. When the limb is removed, the connections that exist in the brain remain active until the brain slowly re-maps itself to adjust to the missing appendage. People who feel phantom phone vibrations have neural patterns similar to those that are feeling pain from a phantom limb. Those of us who have phones that ring constantly have trained our bodies to be familiar with the sensation, and in turn, our brains treat our phones like an appendage. This also explains why we still think we feel our phones ring even when we leave them at home or in the car, and it’s a vaguely troubling statement about how attached to our technology we’ve become.

1Just What Do We See When We Close Our Eyes?

This phenomenon is something that we’re all extremely familiar with but tend not to think about. If you rub your closed eyes, you’ll “see” a virtual rainbow of colors, shapes, squiggles, and lines. Those are called phosphenes, and the eye and the brain work together to create these weird little visual blips.

Phosphenes occur when there is no external visual stimulus. That can happen when you close your eyes or when you’re focused on scenery that’s vast and monotonous with little to no input as to depth or changes, such as a dark highway at night. People who spend long periods of time in sensory deprivation or meditation often report seeing visions, which can be chalked up to the appearance of phosphenes.

The presence of physical stimulus to the eye, like pushing on the eyeball, will create temporary phosphenes, and more traumatic events like head injuries can create permanent squiggles. In these cases, phosphenes are present because the visual centers of the brain are active without the presence of external visual stimuli. For example, when conscious patients undergoing brain surgery had different areas of their brains electrically stimulated, they reported seeing phosophenes. In studies of blind people, it’s been found that the appearance of phosphenes happens in different areas along the sight pathway between the eye and the brain, depending on what part of the visual system has been damaged. Humans aren’t the only ones who can see these dancing bits of light and color—the phenomenon has been observed in animals as well.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Debra Kelly

After having a number of odd jobs from shed-painter to grave-digger, Debra loves writing about the things no history class will teach. She spends much of her time distracted by her two cattle dogs.

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