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How Our Brain Tricks Us

Buzzle Staff Mar 22, 2020
The human brain is an amazing thing, and the more we learn, the more awesome it gets. It's so awesome, in fact, that it tricks you every single day - these tiny little shortcuts may have played a big part in our successful evolutionary history.
The human brain is amazing - possibly, the pinnacle of natural creation. Everything we learn about it just underscores how little we actually do know, and all of our technological leaps and bounds have yet to produce such a stunningly fast and efficient computer.
Because that's what the brain is, really - a computer. Data goes in and data comes out. What happens in between, however, can get pretty weird. Your brain processes information so seamlessly that you don't even realize it's happening most of the time.
Every second of every day, your brain makes sense of the world around you, allowing you to navigate the complexities of life with relative ease. For example, the simple act of catching a ball involves a series of complex physics equations to determine velocity, angle of descent, etc.
It would take a physics graduate student a decent amount of brain power and scrap paper to figure it out - yet your brain does it instantly. With that level of information processing going on, it's no surprise to learn that this incredible organ has developed a few shortcuts to help out - and these shortcuts make for some interesting experiences.

McCollough Effect

The McCollough effect is a sort of optical illusion, but unlike physiologic illusions that play on the structure of the eye itself, the McCollough effect plays upon the way your visual cortex processes and retains information. The effect is best illustrated with a simple image of a black and white grid.
First you stare at the grid to cement the image in your mind. Then you stare at an image of only vertical lines colored red. Then you stare at an image of only horizontal lines colored green. Then go back and stare at the original grid again. Guess what happens?
Suddenly, your brain sees red vertical lines and green horizontal lines, even though the image itself is black and white. Why? It's not an afterimage, which appears on everything and lasts only seconds - it's an induction effect, which can last for months after an initial exposure of only 15 minutes.
It happens because the area of your visual cortex that produces color correction also responds to orientation - so in effect, your brain is just "fixing" the initial image.

Deja Vu

Have you ever had that feeling that you've been here before? Yeah, everyone does. It's not paranoia, or supernatural, or an image from a past life or an alternate you. It's just your brain messing up.
What happens is that your brain processes the information about the experience before you even perceive it. Then, it recalls the information to your consciousness, or "working" brain. Problem is, occasionally the wires get crossed between short-term memory and long-term memory.
If the information is recalled from short-term memory (correctly, because it first entered the brain, fractions of a second ago), everything would be normal. But if the information is mistakenly recalled from long-term memory, it feels like an actual memory, not new information, and gives you the impression that you're reliving a past experience.


Have you ever seen the man in the moon? A face in tree bark? A figure in the clouds? Jesus in a tortilla?
Remember when you were kid and you swore that the shadow of your lamp became a monster at night? Pareidolia is the phenomenon that occurs when we see faces and the human figure where there are none.
We can't help it - we are hardwired to do it, and this particular brain quirk is responsible for most of what we call "supernatural" experiences (there's an auditory component as well).
Humans are predisposed to recognize the human face and figure in less-than-optimal conditions. From birth, we can see the human face clearly in low light, at a distance, in poor visibility, etc. - whatever details our eyes can't see, our brain fills in.
Our brains gave us an evolutionary advantage, allowing us to tell friend from foe/predator early, and continues today. Our brains are really good at pattern recognition, and the human face is our favorite pattern.

Troxler's Fading

Have you ever stared at something so long that everything else around you went fuzzy? That's Troxler's fading - staring at a fixed stimulus for an extended period of time causes everything else in your field of vision of less importance to fade away.
Like Pareidolia, this is also an evolutionary throwback - imagine being a caveman hunting and gathering food - the success of your hunt or gathering expedition would depend upon how closely you could focus on what you were looking for, whether it was discerning a camouflaged animal or a particular sort of plant.
It's simply a neural adaptation that allows unchanging stimuli to be dropped from our visual perception, re-routing all our focus to the primary stimulus. In other words, it's why we concentrate so well.
So yes, your brain plays tricks on you daily - but it means it in the best possible way, really. Without these tricks, we may not have out-evolved our proto-human competitors.