The human brain is a fascinating and complex organ. Beyond its ability to help us reason, function and think, it plays some crazy tricks on us. All throughout history, humans have experienced things called psychological phenomena – mind tricks that sometimes defy explanation but are experienced by most people. Here are 10 of them, with a description of the phenomenon itself (when it has one!) and an example of it in action with a real, live human being.
We did a video about this, if you like to watch, rather than read.
Why did Brian Williams, noted NBC news anchor, say he was in a helicopter that was attacked in Iraq? Was he lying? Or, was there something deeper at work. For that matter, why did George Harrison write “My Sweet Lord” to sound just like the Chiffon’s hit 1962 song, “He’s So Fine?” Did he plagiarize, or did he not notice the similarity between his song and the other? An argument can be made for the latter in both instances, all because of something called cryptomnesia. The term was invented by doctors Alan Brown and Dana Murphy, after conducting three experiments at Southern Methodist University in 1989. They discovered that people will unknowingly “borrow” the ideas of others, rather than thinking of new ideas. Rather than consciously stealing a song, or making up a story out of thin air, the human brain is capable of taking a story, song or idea and transforming it. In the person’s mind, it becomes new. Original. When really, it’s just a memory.
Studies have shown this phenomenon is pretty common, but it’s pretty hard to tell the difference between it and a lie. So, it’s possible that Brian Williams simply thought he was on that helicopter, or he might have been lying. In the case of George Harrison, however, a judge decided that cryptomnesia really was the culprit, and Harrison was charged with “subconscious plagiarism.” It’s scary when you think about it. How many of our ideas are actually our own, and how many are really memories?
9. Deja Vu
Have you ever visited a new place, only to get the feeling that you’d been there before? That’s called a deja vu, and it happens to almost everybody. Art Markman, Ph.D., explains deja vu as a device our brains use to create a sense of familiarity in a particular situation using source memories as context clues. He says that humans are good at remembering objects, so if we see a person wearing the same t-shirt that we saw our friend wear last week, we don’t get confused that the stranger in the same shirt is our friend. However, we are not great at recalling memories based solely on how objects are arranged. So, if you see a stack of those t-shirts in one store, and then years later go to a completely different store in a completely different city, you might not remember that you saw an identical stack of shirts, but instead feel a sense of familiarity, of knowing, and not know why.
In one extreme case, French psychiatrist Francois-Leon Arnaud wrote about a guy named Louis who lived in the 19th century. Louis was a soldier who suffered from amnesia, then headaches, irritability and insomnia. And, he suffered from almost constant deja vu. Everything he experienced felt like something he’d experienced before. At the time, his doctors diagnosed him with “illusion deja vu,” but today it’s suggested that Louis may have had a memory disorder like recollective confabulation, where people routinely think that all new information is familiar. For us, the occasional deja vu is a creepy and otherworldly feeling, so much that some people think it’s really a memory from a past life.
8. Bystander Effect
The Bystander Effect is a psychological phenomenon that is social in nature. It’s characterized by the unlikeliness of a group of people (the bigger the group, the more likely the phenomenon) to help during an emergency. The most famous example of this is the 1964 murder of young Kitty Genovese, when allegedly she was murdered on the streets of New York and the 38 bystanders who witnessed the murder did nothing to help. A great example of the phenomenon, if true. However, Kitty’s brother, Bill, decided to get to the bottom of what really happened to his sister and it turns out that only a few people actually saw the attack, and one actually shouted for the murderer to stop. Two people claimed to have called the police, though there are no phone records. Bill says that regardless of whether or not people tried to help, his sister’s story is an important lesson to those who might do nothing when they see someone in trouble.
Another disturbing example of Bystander Effect is that of Topsy the Elephant. Topsy killed one man, but was accused of being a “serial man killer,” and was therefore sentenced to death. Originally believed to be one in a long streak of electrocutions in that “War of the Currents,” it’s likely that electrocution was chosen for Topsy because it was more humane than the original form execution, which was hanging. The electrocution of Topsy occurred on Coney Island, in front of Luna Park employees, Edison’s employees, and many other witnesses. Nobody lifted a finger. A gruesome account of the atrocity can be found in in Michael Daly’s book, Topsy. An Edmund Burke quote comes to mind: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
7. Placebo Effect
If you’ve ever participated in a clinical study (or studied science, for that matter), you know what a placebo is. It’s a pill or other treatment that has no physical effect, but can produce a psychological benefit called the Placebo Effect. In essence, if someone takes a placebo and experiences some sort of benefit, there you have this particular psychological phenomenon. One example of this is the case of MK-869, an experimental antidepressant developed by Merck in 2002. The drug tested exceedingly well at first, and Merck had high hopes for domination in the marketplace. Imagine how disappointed shareholders and analysts were, however, when data showed that while those who took MK-869 did feel better, so did the same amount of people who took the placebo.
This is a pretty common occurrence in the world of pharmaceuticals. In fact, about 50% of developing drugs fail in the trial stage because it’s found that the placebo is just as effective. Some medical professionals even claim that some people react well even when they know they are receiving a placebo. That the ritual of taking medicine or doing something healthy can make the brain think that the body is healing. Maybe there is something to the old adage, “Heal thyself.”
6. McGurk Effect
The McGurk Effect, a crazy psychological phenomenon that has to do with your eyes and your ears (and how they get confused) when perceiving speech. It happens when your brain associates the hearing part of one sound and pairs it with the visual appearance of another sound being spoken, which leads to the brain perceiving a nonexistent third sound. Whoa, right?
It happens especially when you can’t hear the sound that well (like in a crowded room, or when a person is speaking very softly) but you can see the lips move, making you think you “hear” something else. Think about that kid in class who mouthed “elephant shoe” at you. The phenomenon was first explained in 1976 by, not surprisingly, a guy named McGurk who studied how infants perceive language as they develop. It’s best described in video format, and there are a lot of examples out there. Like this one or, obviously, the one embedded above.
You just heard about a new director from your film nerd friend. Later that day, you look up a movie with your favorite actor in it on IMDd and BAM, it’s that director. Then, you pick up the newspaper and there’s a profile on the same director – the one you had never heard of before. All of a sudden, this guy is everywhere. Is he the next Scorsese, or did your film buff friend plant all these references for you? Neither! You’re experiencing the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
Arnold Swicky, a linguistics professor at Stanford, named this phenomenon Frequency Illusion in 2006, because it was easier than calling it the “When you hear something one time and all of the sudden it’s everywhere syndrome.” He explained that it is caused by two psychological processes. In one, you learn a thing and then, without knowing it, you look for it other places. In the other, confirmation bias tells you that the thing is everywhere overnight, simply because you never noticed it before. The term Baader-Meinhof came about earlier than 2006, on a St. Paul Pioneer Press online forum, where a participant heard the name of the notorious terrorist group two times in the same day. The phrase got meme-ified and later Swicky gave it a medical name.
4. Cognitive Dissonance
You know that getting sunburned can cause skin cancer, but you skip the sunscreen anyway. Or you smoke, even when you know that smoking causes cancer. You’ve got yourself a great example of cognitive dissonance, a phenomenon that occurs when you experience a conflict of attitude, behavior, or belief. Your behavior (skipping the sunscreen) belies your cognition (the fact that you know that you could get skin cancer), creating a state of cognitive dissonance.
This was first studied by Leon Festinger in 1957, when a doomsday cult that believed a flood was going to end the world… well, they didn’t get destroyed by a flood (and neither did the world). He found that people who were on the fence about the flood felt pretty dumb for giving up their houses and jobs and chalked it up to a learning experience, while the devout cult members decided that it was their great faith and sacrifice that saved the world. There are also fun ways to explore this phenomenon, like this Prezi about the cognitive dissonance in Mean Girls.
3. Online Disinhibition Effect
Unless you avoid the internet altogether (and judging by the fact you’re reading this, that’s pretty definitively not the case), you’ve seen the Online Disinhibition Effect in action. It’s your sweet former teacher that turns into a hate-filled rage ball on a Facebook thread. It’s Roseanne tweeting herself into unemployment. It’s the internet user’s tendency to say (or type) things they wouldn’t usually say in real life. This is caused by a number of personality variables that cause a person to deviate from their “normal” behavior. Just like people who feel less shy when online, some people lose a lot more than shyness when they feel a sense of anonymity.
Even on social media, where your name and photo are attached to your profile, it’s possible to minimize authority, loosen your self-boundaries and pretend it’s all a game when nobody is responding to you in person. If only people could just do what we do and pretend their mother can see everything they post online. Hey, if it works, it works!
2. Reverse Psychology
If you’re a parent, you’ve likely used reverse psychology to get your kids to do what you want. For instance, if they don’t want to eat their dinner, and then you tell them they’re not allowed to eat dinner, odds are they will. Reverse psychology relies on reactance, where a person responds negatively to persuasion, and instead responds to the thing that they’re persuaded not to do. Even if you’re not a parent, you’ve likely used it on family members, partners, or coworkers.
Reverse psychology dates back as far as human behavior, with a notable example in the 1700s. Apparently, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, while imprisoned during the Seven Years’ War, ate a whole lot of potatoes. In France, potatoes were frowned on, and only fed to animals. French Parliament even outlawed potatoes in 1748, because they thought that they caused leprosy. When Antoine-Augustin got back to France in 1763 he started thinking about overcoming the bias against potatoes, because he knew they were very nutritious. One story says that he planted a potato patch and hired a guard to protect it, spreading the rumor that he was growing something special in there. Of course, people snuck in to steal the potatoes, and they decided they were a-ok.
1. Overview Effect
The last entry on our list is a psychological phenomenon most of us won’t experience. It’s the Overview Effect – the sensation that astronauts feel when they see the Earth as a whole. Six astronauts were interviewed by Inverse, and the experience of seeing Earth from space made them change how they saw their planet, and their relationship to it. The term Overview Effect was created by Frank White to describe the experience of seeing the Earth as part of something bigger. Makes sense, since when we live on the Earth the Earth is plenty big for us to consider. What would the world be like if everyone could look at the universe in a different way? Read those testimonials from the six astronauts interviewed and you’ll get an idea.
Our brains are strange and wonderful places, capable of greatness and atrocity. An understanding of how the brain works might help us avoid the latter, but it will surely help us strive to the former.