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March 24, 2014

Why our brains just cannot let this mystery go

(Continued)

Chabris and Simons also write that we love to order things not because we crave chronology but because we crave causation. This imperative can serve us well. As they point out, if you see your brother eat a fruit with dark spots and he later vomits, you will likely avoid a similar-looking fruit. If the cause was the spots, you've made a good conclusion, but if the illness was due to a virus, you've made an erroneous one. In the Flight 370 mystery, we've seen over and over this desire to alight on a single piece of data and make a sweeping conclusion. This is why Slate's Will Dobson debunked the brief frenzy over the idea that there was a connection between the disappearance of Flight 370 and the fact that the day before the flight, the captain of the plane, who supported an opponent of the Malaysian ruling party, attended that man's trial.

Our brains are also future-prediction machines. David Eagleman writes in "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," that in order for us to catch a ball, for example, we need a brain trained to anticipate how a round, thrown object behaves. After sufficient practice catching balls, our brain understands the laws of physics enough for us to put out a hand where the ball will be — even though our eye and hand lag behind where the ball actually is. To be efficient, our models of how the world works must function below our consciousness. Eagleman writes that it's when sensory input violates our expectations that our conscious brain tries to solve the discrepancy or attend to the novel data. The novelty of a Boeing 777 simply disappearing is hard to overstate; no wonder our collective brain circuits devoted to noticing the unusual are fully focused.

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