Top 10 Strange Examples of Cognitive Phenomenon

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We are all familiar with the phrase “your mind plays tricks on you.”  In many scientific cases, this statement has proven to be true.  The human brain is extremely complex and organized.  Professionals are skilled at making observations surrounding cognitive tendencies, but understanding the mechanisms behind human perception is challenging.  The cognitive map that develops human personality is intriguing and has revealed some bizarre phenomenon.  For example, the black-dog bias is a veterinarian and animal shelter phenomenon in which black dogs are frequently passed over for adoption in favor of lighter-colored animals.

Many shelters have taken active measures to make sure that black dogs are more appealing to the general public.  It seems that large black dogs are the most ignored, but the phenomenon also impacts cats.  It is unclear exactly why people subconsciously pass over black dogs, but some explanations include the fact that black dogs are often viewed as violent in film, people associate the color black with evil, and that black animals don’t photograph well for online advertising purposes.  Next time you’re selecting a canine friend, take an extra look at the lonely black dog.  This article will document ten bizarre examples of human cognitive phenomenon.

10. The Color of Water

color of water

Have you ever wondered why water appears to be colorless when consumed and purchased in small quantities, but when viewed in the world’s oceans and lakes it looks blue or green.  In reality, pure water has a slight blue tint that becomes a deeper blue as the thickness of the observed sample increases.  The blue color of water is an intrinsic property and is caused by selective absorption and scattering of white light.  In order to view the true color of water, the sample needs to be over a specified size and purified.  For this reason, a glass of water produces the illusion of a colorless substance, when in fact it has a slight blue tint.  Impurities dissolved or suspended in a water sample may give it a different appearance.

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If natural water was colorless, then the world’s lakes and oceans would appear to be grey or black.  It is a common misconception that in large bodies, such as the oceans, the water’s color is blue because of the reflections from the sky.  Reflection of light off the surface of water only contributes significantly when the water is extremely still.  Because most lakes and oceans contain suspended living matter and mineral particles, light scattering would normally give off a white color, as with snow.  However, because the light first passes through the water, which is a blue-colored liquid, the scattered light appears blue.  In extremely pure water, the scattering from the water molecules themselves and not the organic material contributes to the blue color.

Some constituents found in seawater can influence the shade of blue.  This is why the world’s oceans and lakes can appear greener or bluer in different areas.  Clear, blue tropical water can signify a lack of plankton.  Impurities can be deeply colored as well, for instance dissolved organic compounds called tannins can result in dark brown colors, or algae floating in the water (particles) can impart a green color.  The true color of water can only be measured after the sample is filtered to remove all suspended material.  It should be noted that the presence of a specific color in water does not indicate pollution.  Many color-causing substances are harmless.  Minerals may also contribute to water color, such as at Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon, which holds a high concentration of dissolved lime that gives the water a turquoise color.

9. Contagious Shooting

Contagious Shooting

We have all read news stories documenting a police shooting and ultimate death.  In some cases, crime scene investigators are surprised when they discover the extensive use of gunfire that was recorded.  Contagious shooting is a sociological phenomenon observed by military and police personnel in which one person firing a gun on a target can induce others to begin shooting.  Often the subsequent shooters will not know why they are firing or what they are shooting at.  The phenomenon seems to stem from a combination of panic, reflex and trust.  For example, if a police hears a fellow officer fire a gunshot, they panic, and their initial reflex is to quickly begin firing their weapons as well.  The individual assumes that their fellow officer had a good reason for shooting, and they fire instinctively without assessing the situation.

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On more than one occasion, contagious shooting has resulted in the death of innocent, unarmed civilians.  While commonly accepted in police jargon as, “cops shoot because other cops shoot,” there is currently no scientific evidence to prove the existence of the contagious shooting dynamic.  However, people have reported the urge to fire their weapons when using a shooting range or while hunting with friends.  In some cases, the adrenaline of hearing and witnessing a gun’s discharge causes individuals to instinctively shoot.  The phenomenon has been observed in military First Person Shooter games.  Many people have argued that contagious shooting is not a good explanation for some of the recorded police shootings.  The Sean Bell incident took place in Queens, New York on November 25, 2006, when three men were shot a total of fifty times by a team of officers, killing Sean.

8. Forced Perspective

forced perception

Forced perspective is a technique that employs optical illusion to make an object appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it actually is.  It is used primarily in photography, filmmaking and architecture.  The technique takes advantage of the human visual perspective by scaling objects.  Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings uses forced perspective.  In the movie, characters standing next to each other were displaced at a depth from the camera, making some actors appear much smaller in relation to others.  Jackson even constructed portions of the set on movable platforms, which were positioned according to the movement of the camera, so that the optical illusion would be preserved during the entire shot.  The same technique was used in the Harry Potter movies to make the character Hagrid look like a giant.

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The Statue of Liberty is built with a slight forced perspective so that it appears more correctly proportioned when viewed from its base.  Forced perspective is evident in Michelangelo’s statue of David.  The technique is extensively used at theme parks, especially Disneyland locations and in Las Vegas.  The process of forced perspective can occur naturally.  A gravity hill is a place where the layout of the surrounding land produces the optical illusion that a very slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope.  Thus, a car left out of gear will appear to be rolling uphill due to gravity.  Magnetic hills have been reported in hundreds of separate locations around the world.  The most important factor contributing to the illusion of a gravity hill is an obstructed horizon.  Without a horizon, judging the slope of the ground surface is difficult for humans.

One of the most mysterious locations in America is a place known as the Oregon Vortex, located in Gold Hill, Oregon.  The remote area surrounding Gold Hill displays a number of interesting effects and optical illusions.  In the vortex, odd angles create an illusion of objects rolling uphill.  However, the illusion has been reported from multiple perspectives, making the area more bizarre than the average gravity hill.  Organizers of the Oregon Vortex roadside attraction have released images and demonstrated the fact that the bizarre illusions occur from all angles, even when the natural background is removed.  The Oregon Vortex is famous for height change, with the apparent height of two people switching according to where they are positioned.  People are also photographed at a severe angle.  It is interesting to note that the vortex is located near an 1860 hilltop gold strike, in a place characterized by an extreme narrowing of the Rogue River.

7. Green Flash

green flash

Green flashes or green rays are rare optical phenomena that occur shortly after sunset or before sunrise, when a green spot become visible for a short period of time above the sun, or a green ray shoots up from the sunset.  The cause of the green flash has been highly debated over the years.  The phenomenon is rarely seen, but observers always proclaim a brilliant green or emerald light.  The name, green flash, comes from an 1882 Jules Verne novel titled Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray) which popularized the phenomena.  In his novel, Verne described the color as “a green which no artist could ever obtain on his palette, a green of which neither the varied tints of vegetation nor the shades of the most limpid sea could ever produce the like.”

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The green flash is usually observed from a low altitude, where there is an unobstructed view of the horizon, such as on the ocean.  However, it is also possible to see the green color in other geographical areas, including mountain tops.  The currently held scientific belief is that the green flash stems from a refraction of light in the atmosphere.  However, there are problems with the explanation as the refractive index of air is 1.0003 compared with about 1.5 for glass, which means that a ray of light will suffer little refraction in the atmosphere.

Further, there is the question of why the green flash is of such a small area considering the size of the sun’s image. There are many unanswered questions relating to the phenomenon.  The green flash is actually a group of separate occurrences, with some examples baffling intellectuals.  Especially a cloud-top flash, which is seen as the sun sinks into a coastal fog, or at distant cumulus clouds.  A similar phenomenon is the red flash, which is sometimes seen as the lower edge of the Sun emerges from a dark cloud near the horizon.  The green flash is a marvelous and illusive phenomenon.  I would feel lucky to be honored with the view.

6. Online Disinhibition Effect

online disinhibition effect

In psychology, the online disinhibition effect refers to the way people behave on the Internet with less restraint than in real-world situations.  Many people change their natural behavior online.  It is an extremely powerful cognitive phenomenon that is represented by the loosening of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction.  Because of the loss of inhibition, some Internet users show extreme and emotional tendencies.  Some people will become more affectionate and less guarded, speaking out to others about their feelings in an attempt to achieve emotional catharsis.

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With respect to bad Internet behavior, certain individuals are always looking for ways to exploit online material and spark controversy.  Many factors have been identified as contributing to the online disinhibition effect.  Over the Internet, people are anonymous, which gives a sense of protection that will often bring out dark personality traits.  The Internet provides a privacy shield for its users that continually gives people the chance to provide misrepresentations.  One can’t be physically seen on the Internet, therefore, people don’t worry about appearance and their overall tone of voice is dramatically lowered.

On the Internet, conversations don’t happen in real time.  The delayed nature of the online message board can also affect a person’s inhibitions.  Some research suggests that people may see cyberspace as a kind of game in which the normal rules of everyday interaction don’t apply to them.  For some unknown reason, an otherwise well-adjusted person, given a captive audience and opportunity, will often exhibit antisocial and psychopathic behavior on the Internet.  The online disinhibition effect is concerning, as it shows the true behavior of people who are not governed by law or social consequence.

5. Cocktail Party Effect

cocktail party effect

Have you ever wondered how the human brain is able to displace noise and concentrate on one individual in a crowded room full of loud music, dancing, and conversation?  The cocktail party effect describes the brain’s ability to focus attention on a single talker among a mixture of conversations and background noise.  The effect enables people to talk in noisy locations.  For example, when conversing at a musical concert, people can listen to the band and understand a friend all at the same time.  They can also simultaneously ignore loud noises.  Nevertheless, if someone calls out your name from across the room, people will notice.

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Another interesting aspect of the cocktail party effect is de-reverberation, which is the fact that in a normal setting the listener perceives much less echo and reverberation than a microphone recording.  The human auditory system is able to ignore most of the reflected sound, because it arrives from other directions than the direct sound.  The auditory system can also switch the direction of attention and turn from one sound source to another.  The cocktail party effect has been extensively researched and it works best when people have hearing in both ears.  Individuals who have only one functional ear are much more disturbed by interfering noise than people with two healthy ears.

Research has suggested that in order to use the cocktail party effect the auditory system performs a kind of cross-correlation function between both ear signals.  The principles behind the cocktail party effect are not fully investigated or understood, as is the case with many processes of human perception.  The human pinna (the external flap of skin and cartilage of the ear) is used as a directional filter that selectively removes particular sound frequencies, based on the area from which the noise comes.  The filter can distinguish sounds from above vs. below, and from front vs. back.  The specific neural mechanism in the human brain that is responsible for the cocktail party phenomenon is complex.

4. The Gruen Transfer

greun transfer

Compared to our ancestors, we live in an age of mass technological advancement and advertising.  Advertising is a form of communication that is intended to persuade people into buying objects or acting upon products, ideas, and services.  Over the years, executives have tested and developed advertising techniques that work on the human subconscious.  Subliminal advertising is the process of using sensory stimuli that is below the absolute threshold for conscious perception.  For example, an image may be quickly flashed over a television screen before the person has time to process the item, or it could be flashed and then masked, thereby interrupting the cognitive process.  Many people don’t realize that specific aspects of shopping mall and supermarket design appeal to the human natural instinct.

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Have you ever gone to the supermarket with the intention of buying a specific item and ended up leaving with multiple bags of random purchases.  In shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer is the moment when a consumer enters a shopping mall and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, loses track of their original plans.  It is the moment when consumers respond to “scripted disorientation” cues in the environment.  It has been determined that spatial awareness plays a key role in the observed effect, as does sound, art, and music.

The transfer is marked by a slower walking pace.  It is clearly evident in the design of shopping malls and casinos.  The Gruen transfer describes the split second when a building’s design and “intentionally confusing layout makes our eyes glaze and our jaws slacken, the moment when we forget what we came to the store for and become impulse buyers.”  The effect is also evident at large amusement parks, when the visitor is overwhelmed with what to undertake first.  In response, the shopping public has countered with shopping lists.  It has been determined that if you stick to your prepared shopping list, it will significantly reduce average expenditure.

3. The Moon Illusion

moon illusion

The Earth’s Moon holds some strange characteristics and natural phenomenon.  The Moon is believed to have been created over 5.3 billion years ago by a giant impact between the young Earth and a Mars-sized body.  The gravitational influence of the Moon produces the ocean tides on Earth and the minute lengthening of the day that we all follow.  Strangely, the moon is just the right distance, coupled with just the right diameter and travels in a perfect orbit to completely cover the Sun during an eclipse.  The transient lunar phenomenon is a short-lived light or color change in the appearance of the lunar surface.  The phenomenon dates back at least 1,000 years.  It has been reported by multiple witnesses and reputable scientists.

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The transient lunar phenomenon ranges from a display of foggy patches to permanent color changes on the lunar landscape.  A large percentage of the events are reported near the Aristarchus plateau and crater.  During the Apollo 11 mission Houston radioed to Apollo 11, “We’ve got an observation you can make if you have some time.  There have been some lunar transient events reported in the vicinity of Aristarchus.”   Almost immediately, Armstrong reported back, “Hey, Houston, I’m looking north up toward Aristarchus now, and there’s an area that is considerably more illuminated than the surrounding area.  It seems to have a slight amount of fluorescence.”  In modern times, TLP events are rarely discussed or researched in the scientific community.

The Moon illusion is an optical illusion in which the Moon appears larger near the horizon than it does while higher up in the sky.  The event has been documented since ancient times and has been referenced by many different cultures.  The Moon illusion is a bizarre occurrence that remains unexplained.  In fact, the Moon is farther away from Earth when near the horizon and is about 1.5% smaller than when it is high up in the sky.  With no clear explanation to why the Moon looks larger on the horizon, intellectuals began to accept the occurrence as a psychological phenomenon, meaning our brains are convincing us that the Moon looks bigger.  For over 100 years, research on the Moon illusion has been conducted by vision scientists who invariably have been psychologists specializing in human perception.  Many explanations exist, but to date no single theory is accepted.

2. Tetris Effect

tetris effect

The Tetris effect occurs when people devote a sufficient amount of time and attention to an activity that it begins to overshadow their thoughts, mental images, and dreams.  The phenomenon is named after the video game Tetris.  People who play video games, watch television, or work on complicated tasked for a prolonged amount of time may find themselves thinking about the task in the real world environment or in their dreams.  The Tetris effect has been described as a form of habit and most of us have experienced it.  It is categorized as a hallucination that can easily produce vivid dreams.  In the Tetris video game example, extreme players may view Tetris shapes when drifting off to sleep or see images falling from the sky.  The players often times find themselves trying to put the shapes together in their mind.

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The Tetris effect can occur with many different types of video games, as with any prolonged visual task, such as classifying cells on microscope slides, weeding, picking fruit, or even driving long distances.  Computer programmers and developers have reported a similar experience, and have described dreaming about code when they sleep at night.  It can be an unpleasant experience, often times feeling like cognitive work as you sleep.  A recent Oxford study (2009) suggests that Tetris-like video games may help prevent the development of traumatic memories.  The hypothesis states that if the video game is played soon after the traumatic event, the preoccupation with Tetris shapes is enough to prevent the mental recitation of traumatic images while dreaming, thereby decreasing the accuracy, intensity, and frequency of traumatic reminders.  The cognitive phenomenon is evident in many areas of life, with people reporting vivid dreams surrounding traumatic and stressful events.

1. Illusory Superiority

illusuroy superiority

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive abilities and underestimate their negative qualities in relation to others.  It is a positive illusion that has been studied extensively in social psychology.  Positive illusions have been described as human’s unrealistically favorable attitude toward themselves.  There are three broad categories of positive illusions, inflated assessment of one’s own abilities, unrealistic optimism about the future and an illusion of control.  Illusory superiority is often referred to as the above average effect.  The above-average effect states that people regard themselves more positively and less negatively than others actually perceive them.

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Everyone forms opinions based on social comparisons.  These comparisons can be based around academic performance, working environments or social settings.  In life, people hold a specific view of their personal popularity, overall honesty, confidence, and other desirable traits.  Illusory superiority shows that people over exaggerate their positive abilities, popularity and intelligence, for instance, a person without a high school diploma arguing a diagnosis with a medical professional.  It has been reported that people with a low IQ have a strong sense of illusory superiority.  The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the ability to appreciate their mistakes.

In one example of illusory superiority, many scientific papers have been published that examine people’s erroneous view of their driving ability.  In a 2006 study, it was determined that drivers rated themselves superior to others on 18 components of driving skill.  In the paper, it was proposed that the bias may undermine people’s hazard safety perception.  The natural process of illusory superiority is creating an illusion around personal gambling ability.  For some reason, people regularly feel that they hold an advantage over other professional poker players, ignoring clear statistics of loss and house dominance.  Just remember that experience, education, and hard work create expertise.  If you don’t have this, you might not be as smart as your internal mind tells you.

by Bryan Johnson


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7 Comments

  1. Well, that was interesting. Thank you. I’d like to say that #1 isn’t necessary a bad thing (at least not always). You have to appreciate yourself and your abilities, otherwise you’ll just get depressed and bitter, and you won’t get anything done at all. Think big, and you may achieve at least some of it; think small, and achieve nothing.

  2. The problem with No. 1, Bryan, is that when people truly believe they are superior they are able to convince others of it. Look at the top management levels at many companies and you will see a lot of people who are not very bright but believe they are geniuses. They’re at that level because they were able to convince their bosses they were great. And once they have a reputation for being smart, no mistake is big enough to change that.

    • That’s where you have to asume most people have enough intelegence to know otherwise. There’s alot of poeple in this world that asume they’re smart, even smarter than you and I. Yet, you have to have the confidence to know that you are an intelegent human being. Now, does that mean you share the same case of over inflated personal sense of superiority. And yet, if you know, with a deep, justified passion, you must support yourself. And when you say that no mistake is big enough to change a reputation, I don’t believe to be true. If you see someone make a truely bone-head mistake, you’re going to asume he’s a bone-head. Even if you’re co-league says he’s smart, you’ll know otherwise. In other words, actions are louder than words, and that doesn’t have to be a good impresion. Now, I wan’t you to agree because I think it will make you smarter, but if you don’t, bravo also, because thats show the confidence in intelegence, because thats what makes us human.

  3. Interesting article but I wanted to point out one mistake. Subliminal advertising of the type you describe; images flashing too quickly to consciously register them, has been shown to not actually have an effect on people. If you read the wikipedia article on it you can learn some fascinating history behind it.

  4. I have just witnessed a “green flash” at sunset from Indian Rocks Beach, FL.
    I have been looking and hoping for 20 some years.

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