The human brain is a wondrous feat of evolution. It quite literally makes us who we are and science and philosophy have long identified it as the centre of our being. In this world-view the rest of our bodies merely serve as life-support systems for the brain.
No matter how wonderful we find the brain, however, there’s no denying that it has more than a few quirks. This post is the first in an irregular series that will examine some of these oddities.
Quirk Number 1 – It can be confused by a door
Admit it, it has happened to everyone. You need to do something in another room but as soon as you enter it you forget why you came in. Sound familiar?
Well good news, of a sort. It doesn’t happen because you get distracted or you’re scatter-brained. It happened because of the door. Walking through a doorway is enough to cause you to forget! Worse, even imagining that you walk through a doorway can have the same effect!
Researchers at University of Notre Dame investigated this phenomenon in the wonderfully plain-English titled paper “Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations“. It seems that the brain remembers events as episodes or chapters and it treats doorways as event boundaries. In other words, your brain seems to remember your life as if it was a play with numerous scenes, each set in one location. When you exit stage left you enter a new scene and your brain files the memories of old scene tidily away .
This means you occasionally forget the odd thing now and then, so how can you guard against it? You could always consider making your home open-plan, or else try this trick. Try to “hook” what you’re looking for with something within the room. For example, if you left your wallet somewhere in the sitting room you could imagine that your couch has been replaced by a giant wallet. You needn’t know where your wallet is, just imagine it interacting with or replacing something in the room that you cannot miss. Then when you enter the sitting room and see your couch, hopefully that will trigger the memory of your wallet that the doorway may have wiped out!
Quirk Number 2 – Using it can make you fat
This one is definitely depressing. The human body is very much subject to the maxim use it or lose it, and the brain is no exception. We are all encouraged to keep using our brains for our whole lives to stave off cognitive decline. Keep learning new things, do puzzles etc etc.
Unfortunately there is a downside to this. Working the brain erodes your willpower. In a study by Stanford University undergraduates were asked to walk down a hallway while remembering a number. Half were asked to remember a two digit number, the other half had to remember seven digits. At the end of the hall the subjects could choose between a slice of chocolate cake or a fruit salad. Nearly twice as many people who were asked to remember seven digit numbers chose the cake. It appears that only 5 extra digits make it harder to choose a healthy snack.
So maybe this is why we gorge on fast food after a particularly taxing day. Don’t despair though! Willpower also complies to the use it or lose it principle. The more you practice denying yourself little things the easier it gets to resist the bigger temptations in life. Just don’t buy cake on the day you have to do your tax returns!
Quirk Number 3 – Your memory may be a tissue of lies
False memories are astonishingly easy to create. Hearing about an event repeatedly over a period of time can convince you that you were at that event when you were not. You will remember it as clearly as any other memory you have.
These false memories can also be planted, often quite innocently, by people asking probing questions about events. Rather than uncovering the truth these questions may guide you in creating a false memory. People have been sent to jail based on memories that have been revealed to be false. For the person with the memory however, there is no way to discern which memories are true and which false.