Your brain is almost always there when you need it, barring those occasions when you find yourself chemically altered, really tired or far too enamored with an attractive person you’re trying to impress. And while it’s a marvel of biology capable of doing incredible things, the fact is your brain is only human. If you try hard enough, you can play some tricks on it, which is doubly impressive since it’s the one helping you play the tricks in the first place. Let’s check out ten of the most impressive ones.
10. Hanger Reflex Can Make Your Head Involuntarily Turn
Internet trends, memes, and viral videos come and go. Yesterday’s Ice Bucket Challenge becomes tomorrow’s Yanny/Laurel. And in May 2022 the coolest thing going, for about two weeks, was the Hanger Challenge.
The premise was as simple as it was unbelievable. Put a wire hanger around your head and it’ll make your head turn whether you want it to or not. No one believed it was real, so everyone had to try for themselves and then post their own videos of the results. Thus, a viral trend was born as the number of videos exploded, fueled by general disbelief that the weird effect could at all be genuine. But it was! If you properly stretch a hanger around your head, it will, in fact, cause your head to involuntarily turn. For most people, anyway.
Despite becoming trending in 2022, the phenomenon had been realized much earlier and was even written about in scientific papers back in 2015. It was even featured on Japanese TV as far back as 1995. You can safely assume it’s been a thing for as long as both hangers and heads have existed. It just never got this much press before.
When the unilateral fronto-temporal region of your head is compressed, the movement is involuntary, but the exact reason why this happens isn’t entirely clear. Nonetheless, over 95% of people who were tested in a study felt sensation while just 4.2% seemed immune.
9. Sunglasses Can Trick You Into Being Happier
Do people in sunglasses seem happier to you than other people? It’s very possible they might be, and it’s not just because they look super cool. Sunglasses trick your brain into being happier.
The power of sunglasses is tied up in how human emotion works. You may have heard some people referred to as wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and maybe you yourself aren’t so great at hiding your emotions. The way we look and act can have an effect on how we feel, and the simple act of frowning can make you feel sad or even angry and aggressive. And, to be clear, you don’t have to be frowning because you’re sad or angry. Bright sun in your eyes will make you squint and frown and that gesture is enough to actually induce the negative emotions associated with frowning.
Participants in a study who wore sunglasses reported being less angry and aggressive overall than those who were not wearing them. This seems to mesh with other research that suggests just the act of smiling releases stress-relieving chemicals. So if you find yourself feeling a little wound up on a sunny day, try slipping on the shades and trick your brain into thinking you’re happy.
8. Placebo Sleep Can Trick You Into Feeling Rested
The CDC says one in three adults doesn’t get enough sleep. For that reason alone, finding a way to get more rest seems like a good idea. So what if you could just trick your brain into thinking you slept, even when you didn’t? Turns out, that’s an option, and it works.
Placebo sleep works like most any other placebo, when your mind constructs the illusion that something has happened, even when it hasn’t. Given the right stimuli, you can be convinced you’re well rested even if you’re not.
Researchers took two groups of people and explained the importance of REM sleep, then did a sleep study. They were told a good amount of REM sleep is between 20% and 25%. After a sleep study, one group was told they spent 28.7% of their time in REM sleep. The other group was told they’d only had 16.2% REM. Those were not true numbers.
Those who were told they slept better did better on cognitive tests after the fact. Those who were told they slept worse performed worse compared to control groups. How any of them actually felt had no bearing at all.
7. The Rubber Hand Illusion
You would hope that, above all else, your brain would at least be able to identify where your body parts are and what they feel like. Sadly, you can even trick it to fail at doing that with something called the Rubber Hand Illusion.
The trick here is as simple as it is perplexing and can be done at home if you want. You need a fake hand of some kind; something as simple as a blown up rubber glove will do. Rest your right forearm on a table with your hand concealed from view in a box or behind cardboard. Put the hand in front of yourself lined up with your shoulder. You can use a towel to cover it below the wrist to help complete the illusion.. Your other hand can be under the table.
Have someone sit opposite you and use two paint brushes to stroke your concealed hand and the rubber hand in unison. Keep focused on the fake hand. If the stimulation is properly coordinated, most people begin to perceive the fake hand as their real hand. When the rubber hand is threatened, such as with a knife or needle, your brain will actually produce a response as though your real hand were about to be stabbed.
6. The Nocebo Effect Can Make You Feel Pain or Sickness
We’ve addressed placebos already, so let’s take it up a notch with the nocebo effect. This can actually make you feel pain and sickness for literally no reason at all, just by tricking your brain. In essence, it’s believing something bad will happen and then it does only because you think that way.
An example of how this can work parallels the placebo effect and, actually, was half of what happened in the placebo sleep example. If you take a useless pill and a doctor tells you, it’ll make you feel great, and it does, that’s placebo. But if the doctor says it has horrible side effects and you start to feel sick, that’s the nocebo effect. It’s all your brain making up symptoms based on what it’s been told is happening, even if it’s not true.
5. The Stopped Clock Illusion
Ever feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day? Well, you’re in luck, because there’s a way you can freeze time. Or at least trick your brain into thinking you did for a moment.
Quick eye movements can produce visual distortions known as saccadic suppression and it’s what prevents you from noticing your own eyes moving when you look in a mirror. At the same time, they also produce an illusion called chronostasis. Also called the stopped clock illusion, it’s what happens when you flick your eyes quickly to an analog clock on the wall and it seems like the second hand has stopped moving. It’s caused by rapid eye movements leaving a gap in visual input. Moving your eyes from your computer to a clock very quickly, for instance, means you don’t really focus on anything in between. To avoid a blur or a spot of darkness, your brain sort of holds that moment, just for a moment, and it makes it seem like the world has stopped, however briefly, in order to ensure a seamless transition.
4. The Cutaneous Rabbit
If you’ve never had a rabbit run along your arm, now’s your big chance to experience the illusion of it without having to hunt down an actual rabbit. The Cutaneous Rabbit can trick your brain into thinking you’re being assaulted by rabbits.
The method is simple. A subject lays out their arm and is subject to five quick, light taps on the wrist. Then five more in the middle of the forearm. Then five more near the elbow. The subject will feel them as a progression of taps from wrist to elbow, mimicking the feeling of a tiny rabbit hopping in 15 hops all the way up the arm. You can see examples of it in YouTube videos with mixed results.
3. Seeing a Black and White Image in Full Color
Another popular trick that gained some steam on TikTok was finding color where there is none. Specifically, you can fool your brain into seeing a black and white image as full color if you focus on a central spot and the image is switched to a high contrast negative color image.
As you focus on the spot, the color receptors in your eyes begin to grow fatigued. Your cones perceive color with three cones, sensitive to wavelengths of blue, red, and green. Once the reverse color image is swapped back to black and white again, your eyes will perceive the colors that were lacking in the contrasted version. The illusion is quick, but for a moment you should perceive the black and white photo in full, true color.
2. Out of Body VR
Virtual reality can be used to trick you into having an out of body experience. It’s a bit like the rubber hand illusion, only this time it’s full body immersion. The VR environment needs to present you with a duplicate of yourself, and then all someone needs to do is poke you with a stick.
As one neuroscientist explained, your sense of self and body is constructed through a lot of sensory data. Sight is a big part of it, but what you can feel physically and also where you feel your body is oriented are relevant as well. When you trick the brain by showing it new information that doesn’t match up, it freaks out a little bit. In experiments, researchers were able to have participants look at virtual bodies being touched and actually feel themselves in that other, virtual body when sensations match up to what they were also feeling. At one point, when the virtual body was smashed with a hammer, the participants registered fear responses, including increased sweating and pulse as though they were experiencing the assault themselves.
In another experiment, participants were asked to enter a virtual body and sort of wear it as their own. Then their perspective was shifted so instead of being in the body they were looking at it. Afterward, all the participants who had left the body and looked at it noted a marked reduction in their fear of death. Researchers suspected in this case that leaving the body allowed participants to separate body from consciousness and lose some of the traditional fear of dying in the process.
1. Distorted Body Image Can Reduce Pain
We know there’s a strong psychological component to pain, but just how strong may be surprising. Things like phantom limb syndrome or alien hand syndrome show that your brain’s perception of how your body actually is can be vastly different from reality, but still convince you it’s true. A distorted body image can actually affect how your mind perceives pain, even in chronic conditions, and it can be manipulated in some unusual ways.
In one study, patients with chronic arm pain were asked to look at the arm that hurt, perform a few movements, and then gauge the pain they felt after. They did this four times under different conditions. One was just normal, but the other three involved binoculars. They looked at the arm with no magnification, with increased magnification, and then through reversed binoculars so their arms looked tiny. Nothing else was different.
Participants reported that they felt greater pain when their arm was magnified. But when they looked through the backwards binoculars at a tiny arm, they felt less pain. More interesting was that this wasn’t just in their heads. Researchers measured inflammation after the experiment and there was less swelling after viewing the arm made to look tiny. So it wasn’t just perception, it had a real, physical effect on pain.