7 Expert Cons Your Brain Pulls On You

I wouldn't be so sure. Aunt Betty looks pretty pissed.

This week’s Prompt For The Promptless is about counterintuition.

Counterintuition is a seemingly simple concept–it represents a truth that is contrary to common sense or the expectations of intuition.

The human brain is the most counterintuitive thing in our existence. Your brain is not to be trusted, which is weird since it’s responsible for everything you do, think and say. The human brain is a faulty mechanism that tricks us, and itself, all the time.

My brain is definitely not to be trusted even more than yours. I had a massive head trauma years ago and I’ve had to adapt to working with a damaged brain. When your brain goes busto, it kind of makes you interested in brains in general and how they work. The thing is, we really don’t even know how our own brains work, but we’ve figured some things out.

Today, we’re going to explore some counterintuitive ways our brains trick us all the time.


Have you ever looked at floor tiles and seen faces? A figure in the clouds? Jesus on a piece of toast? A face on Mars? Ponce de León in tree bark? Remember when you were kid and you swore that the shadow of your lamp was a monster?

A satellite photo of a mesa in Cydonia, often called the Face on Mars. Later imagery from other angles did not contain the illusion. Image from Wiki.
A satellite photo of a mesa in Cydonia, often called the Face on Mars. Image from the Pareidolia wiki.
Later imagery from other angles did not contain the illusion. Image from nasa.gov.
Images from other angles do not contain the illusion. Image from msss.com.

Pareidolia is the phenomenon that occurs when we see faces or figures where there are none. This particular quirk is responsible for most of what we call “supernatural” experiences. There’s an auditory component as well, e.g. hearing hidden messages on records when played in reverse.

We can’t help it. We are hardwired to recognize the human face, figure and voice in almost everything. From birth, we can see the human face clearly in low light and at a distance. Whatever details our eyes can’t see, our brain fills in. It gave us an evolutionary advantage, allowing us to tell friend from foe in an instant. Our brains are really good at pattern recognition, and the human face is our favorite pattern.

First Impression Bias

Speaking of pattern recognition, your brain turns you into a judgmental, bigoted racist, whether you want to be or not, because it attempts to classify everything based on stereotypes and known patterns. This is also an evolutionary trait. When you’re out on the plains, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between Aunt Betty and a gigantic carnivore as soon as possible. We needed to know whether to run or not, like, now. Quick, which one of these people is a threat?

I wouldn't be so sure. Aunt Betty looks pretty pissed.
I wouldn’t be so sure. Aunt Betty looks pretty pissed.

However, nowadays, humans don’t have too many predators (besides ourselves), so this ability isn’t all that necessary, but we do it all the same. Stereotypical thinking comes almost naturally. They say that first impressions are the most important. It’s true because humans go around making snap judgments of each other all the time. It’s almost instantaneous and you can’t stop doing it. Way to go, racists!

Most of the time, this judgmental small-mindedness isn’t a problem since we can override first impressions with knowledge, but sometimes it can lead to big trouble. Biased first impressions can prevent us from assessing all the factors involved in a decision. First impressions can lead to doctors misdiagnosing patients or biased jurors.

Troxler’s Fading

Have you ever stared at something so long that everything else disappeared or went fuzzy? That’s Troxler’s fading. When you stare at a fixed point for a long period of time, it causes everything else in your field of vision to fade away. Like the first two items on the list, this is also an evolutionary throwback. If you were a hunter/gatherer, the success of your hunting/gathering depended largely upon how well you could focus on what you were looking for, e.g. a plant, an animal or your car keys.

It’s simply a neural adaptation that allows unchanging scenery to be dropped from our visual field, rerouting all our focus to what we’re looking at. It’s why we can concentrate so well. If you stare at the red dot long enough, the blue circle will actually disappear:



Remember that time that you went to the movies with your friends Jay, Bob, Bill and Ted to see Batman’s Revenge and then had tacos at Taco Ed’s Tacos afterwards? Well, Bob and Ted weren’t there, you actually saw Riddler’s Revenge and you had tacos with your sister at Taco Ed’s three days later. Remember how huge your childhood home was? Yeah, that’s because you were so much smaller. Remember that time when you were a small child that you found a magical unicorn in the woods who gave you a ride to the Leprechaun’s gold? Yeah, that didn’t happen.

It’s called confabulation. It means to fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory. Typically, the psychological condition is the result of a neurological disorder like Alzheimer’s disease, but it happens to normal brains to a lesser extent, too.

The human memory is not etched in stone. Not even close. It’s more like writing in sand right before the tide comes in. The human memory is actually very easily manipulated with images, suggestion and time. If you are the eyewitness to a crime and you offhandedly hear someone say they saw a tall black man, even if you saw a short white lady, your brain will trick you into believing that you saw a tall black man and eventually, with enough repetition, you will actually see Samuel L. Jackson robbing a liquor store.

Does he look like a bitch?
Does he look like a bitch?

That’s an example of a phenomenon called Eyewitness Memory. Here are some scary results of confabulation from the wiki I just linked:

A growing body of research now supports this speculation, indicating that mistaken eyewitness identification is responsible for more convictions of the innocent than all other factors combined. The Innocence Project determined that 75% of the 239 DNA exoneration cases had occurred due to inaccurate eyewitness testimony.

Remember how I told you your brain was not to be trusted? Yeah, that’s why.

Déjà Vu

Have you ever had that feeling that you’ve been here, said that, done this before? Yeah, everyone does. It’s not paranoia, or supernatural, or an image from a past life or an alternate you. It’s just your brain messing up like a skipping record.
I’ve written about this before in the post Brain FAIL so I’ll just paraphrase myself:

[Déjà vu is when] your short-term memory and your long-term memory overlap, giving you two different versions of the same thing. You can recall experiencing something, but you can’t remember the specifics. That’s your brain malfunctioning. That’s your brain trying to trick you … since it doesn’t want to be blamed for the error. It’s the captain of the Titanic trying to blame it on the iceberg when the iceberg is actually part of the ship.

Do not trust the brain.

The Placebo Effect

I experience this one every night. My brain patently refuses sleep without sleeping pills. I need to connect point A-sleeping pills to point B-sleeping. However, someone could come into my sleeping pill stash, replace the insides of the capsules with sugar and I probably would still be able to sleep just as well because I think I’ve taken my sleeping pill.placebos

That’s the placebo effect: your mind knows you’ve taken a pill, so you feel better. In medicine, it seems strongest in the case of pain. 1 in 3 cancer patients respond well to placebo. Some studies even suggest that 80% of the power of Prozac is placebo. Just taking something that is supposed to make us feel better, even if it’s a sugar pill, will sometimes makes us feel better. The placebo effect is counterintuitive because we easily forget that mind and body are not separate.

Choice Blindness

Can you explain exactly why you’re attracted to a certain person (or farm animal)? No? Well, neither can anyone else. It’s called choice blindness and it happens to all of us.

In a 2005 study, researchers showed heterosexual male subjects two pictures of female faces. The subjects were asked to choose the face that they found more attractive. They were then shown the card they chose and asked to explain why they chose it. Every fifth time, the evil scientists used a card trick to switch the cards so the subjects were shown the picture that they didn’t choose. Only 1 in 10 times did the subjects even notice that they were shown the wrong picture. The rest of the time, the subjects went on blithely explaining why they preferred that picture, even though it was not the one they chose.

We seem to have little to no awareness of choices we’ve made and why, and then we use rationalizations to cover our tracks. Human brains are easily tricked into justifying choices they didn’t actually make, like a shell game we play with ourselves.

Yeah, I meant to choose that one.
Yeah, I meant to choose that one.

Even when we’re aware of the deception, unlike the attractiveness study, it still works. For example, your boss is leaving and you decide that you’d really like his job, but that asshole Dave from accounting was promoted instead of you. You then convince yourself you are better off not being the boss. Being the boss is more responsibility, more hours, more headaches. Screw that! You’re much happier where you are. In fact, you really wanted to stay where you are all along. Poor Dave from accounting. What a sucker!

These are just a few examples of how we have relatively little access to the inner workings of our minds. I could continue with cognitive dissonance, event boundaries, etc., but I think we’ll stop here today. My brain is telling me that’s enough and I always listen to my brain.