Weirdest things your brain does

The human brain is a weird thing. It has incredible processing power and storage capacity, it can handle a huge amount of sensory input at once, and it not only makes us who we are, but it keeps us going, too. Unfortunately, it's not entirely perfect; it's full of technical glitches, storage issues, and not a little bit of confusion. That can lead to some pretty weird stuff — some of it so weird, we haven't even wanted to admit it's happening for a long, long time. Fortunately, though, we're here to explain every oddball thing your wonderful weirdo brain does.

Autonomous sensory meridian response

Autonomous sensory meridian response, better known as ASMR, is something that only certain people experience. For these lucky, lucky people, certain triggers create what they describe as a sort of overwhelmingly pleasant, tingling sensation that settles into the back of their head or neck.

What causes it? No clue. A 2018 study found ASMR can produce some mental and physical health benefits, but didn't find any smoking guns. There hasn't been much research done on the phenomenon, and one of the only real scientific studies out there is from Swansea University examining the experiences of 500 people sensitive to ASMR. While they didn't even start to get into what's going on as far as brain activity in ASMR-sensitive people, they did find that for most of the people surveyed, it was whispering that really did the trick and kick-started the head tingles. Deliberate movements was another big one. So there are a whole bunch of videos on YouTube where whispering women pretend to give you a haircut, and people watch them. To relax.

We don't know a whole lot about ASMR — there wasn't even a term for it until 2010. That's not entirely surprising, after all, because even now, those who experience it have a tough time explaining it to those that don't. Even harder is explaining why you're sitting in the dark listening to women whispering at you, waiting for something a lot of people call "head orgasms." 

Lucid dreaming

According to some people capable of lucid dreaming, the entire experience is akin to the mind creating an entirely different reality, completely separate to our normal, boring lives. When we experience lucid dreams, we're completely aware that we're dreaming. That's the technical description of a lucid dream, although some people report they can make decisions and influence exactly what's going on in the dream.

According to Beverly D'Urso, a lucid dreamer who has worked extensively with psychophysiologists at the Lucidity Institute, she's had lucid dreams where she's done everything from visit the Sun to taste fire. That's pretty impressive lucidity, especially considering most people's dreams just involve showing up to school with no pants.

If it sounds farfetched, you'll appreciate knowing that some lucid dreamers have set up signals to communicate with researchers who are watching them sleep (presumably not in a creepy way). Since part of the brain keeps us from moving while we're asleep (most of the time) but our eyes still move freely, lucid dreamers working with British psychologists in the 1980s would move their eyes in a specific pattern to let them know they were in the middle of a lucid dream. That allowed researchers to track everything from electrical activity in the brain to heartbeat, and it's found that brains do become more active during lucid dreams.

Even weirder still, you can teach yourself how to lucid dream, which takes way more explanation then we have the space to get into. It's thought that there might be some practical use for it (training our waking minds, perhaps, or some form of therapy), but seriously, why waste dream control on reading textbooks?

The doorway effect

Ever walk into another room and completely forget why you're there? You're not alone and you're (probably) not going insane — you're just a victim of what's called the Doorway Effect.

Researchers from the University of Notre Dame set up an experiment to see just how walking from one room to another in a controlled environment actually impacted memory. The tests were done both in a virtual setting, and a real life one. Participants were asked to walk into a room and pick up an item. In the game, it disappeared into a virtual backpack while in real life, it was hidden in a box. They would then walk into a different room, put the object down, pick up another one, rinse, and repeat.

At various points in the exercise, they stopped and asked people what was in their box (or inventory). If they were asked right after going through a door, they were less likely to remember and slower to respond whether they were in a real environment or a virtual one. So what's going on? They called it the "event model," which basically means our memories work great until our brain decides the information it's holding onto isn't useful any more.

Another way to think about it is that it's bad timing, and whatever you've forgotten is the bit that your brain has decided is the least useful. If you're thinking about, say, picking up dog food, worrying about a presentation you've got at work tomorrow, wondering what you're going to make for dinner, and going to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, your brain is likely to shove that cup of joe right off your radar. When you change your physical environment at the same time, your mental one is changing gears, and sometimes those gears slip. You drop things. But don't worry, it wasn't important.

Decaying directional awareness

You've heard those stories about those morons so busy following their GPS that they drive right off a cliff or into a lake, right? Cleansing the gene pool, maybe? Or is there something else at work?

Our dependence on navigation systems and the resulting accidents is something called "death by GPS," even if no one actually dies. It turns out that we've become so reliant on GPS technology, our naturally-occurring directional systems are withering away to nothing. We've long known we have parts of the brain solely dedicated to directions, with the best proof of that coming from London's black cab drivers. Getting a cab license requires memorizing 25,000 different streets and countless landmarks, points of interest, and kebab shops along the way. Brain scans of active drivers show that the cabbies' gray matter expands to deal with this sheer volume of information, and decreases back to "normal" levels once they retire.

That last part is what's happening to our brains when we become dependent on our GPS, but we don't have the head start London cabbies do. Mental mapping is hard work, and there's a whole new generation of drivers that don't have to think about things like associating landmarks with their drive to work, or finding shortcuts on their own. When GPS-dependent drivers were tested on their environmental awareness, they failed so miserably, some couldn't even recognize a street in the opposite direction they'd just driven down several times.

In short, GPS is great, but depend too much on one and your sense of direction atrophies.

Semantic satiation

Let's try a little experiment, and you don't even have to get out of your chair! All you have to do is say (or write, or type) the word "dog" over and over again. Keep going.

Keep going.

And keep going even more. Do it enough, and it starts to sound a little funny. You'll start to wonder if it's even a word. What does this mean? Is it spelled right? What's a dog? What's happening?

It's called semantic satiation, and it happens when we see or hear the same word repeated over and over again. For around a century now, psychologists have known about the phenomenon, and it's a pretty straightforward one. When we hear (or see) something enough times, our brain gets bored, and presumably wanders off to play with someone else. We don't just stop paying attention to it — we also stop assigning it any particular meaning.

It's the same thing that's happening if you spend all day in a coffee shop — by the end of the day, you don't smell coffee any more because your brain is bored of it.

Paradox of choice

Not only is your brain fickle, it's sabotaging you and making you miserable. That's the theory behind Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice, and it makes a whole lot of sense.

The basic idea is that every day, our modern world presents us with an overwhelming number of choices. We call it freedom, but it's really presenting us with a sort of crippling indecision, even after we make our choice. Our brains compare our choices to the ones that others make, and because brains are cruel, they always focus on the choices that we think turned out better. We second-guess everything, from our career choices to decisions at the grocery store and everything in between. That's a huge amount of information to process, and that means we're as overwhelmed by the things we don't do as much as by the things we do.

Schwartz says that a lot of the time, it's this freedom that results in us not doing anything at all. Freedom, coupled with high standards that seem to get only worse and worse with the shiny, selective view of reality via social media, paralyzes us into never deciding which friend to hang out with, which movie to go to, which restaurant to eat at, etc. It's everywhere, it overloads our brains, and it gives us less freedom at the end of the day, so we just stay home on the couch … where we're faced with the choices on Netflix.

Earworms

Earworms are songs that get stuck in your head. Everyone seems to have their own songs they're vulnerable to — a Goldsmiths University study asked people what they usually found getting stuck in their head, and wound up with around 5,000 songs.

Earworms happen for a surprisingly complicated reason, and part of it has to do with repetition. (How many times did you hear "Heeeeey, Macarena!" playing on the radio, and in your own head, right now?) It's more than just that, though, as songs are one of the few things that are absolutely identical every time you hear them. That gives you no question about what melody or lyric comes next, which allows your brain to run away with the song and continue to play it until you wonder if gouging your eardrums out with a spoon will help.

It also has something to do with a part of our short-term memory, called a slave system. That's the part that stores information we need to concentrate on *right now*, like a phone number, or what we're ordering when the waiter finally comes back. A song's familiarity, repetition, and catchy lyrics trick that part of our brain into thinking it's uber-important we figure out what the fox is saying right now, even though we don't really care. Also, it can take virtually any sort of exposure (or completely unrelated stimuli) to get that mental music playing … which is why we also can't resist telling you about our pocketful of sunshine.

Deja vu

You're familiar with deja vu, the feeling that you've experienced something before. For years, we haven't had a clue what's going on during the unsettling episodes … until now. Sadly, it's not a past life experience poking into our consciousness — it's our brain resolving a conflict in information.

It was only in July 2016 that a team from the University of St. Andrews in the UK presented their findings on the subject. They suggested that deja vu, the feeling that you've experienced something before, happens in the front part of the brain and is triggered when we think we've experienced something that we haven't. The team triggered the feeling by giving volunteers lists of words like "dream, night, and bed," then asking them if they had seen a word that started with "s." "Sleep" wasn't on the list, but it was familiar enough to what they had been thinking about, it seemed like it should have been.

So basically, when we feel deja vu, maybe what we're actually feeling is our brain re-accessing our memories to see how it can resolve the conflict in information. Never experienced deja vu? It might mean your memory is better than average, and you never have errors to correct. Show-off.

Lethologica

You've been there, trying to think of a word or a name that you know but can't come up with. It's the thing you're looking for, the whatsit you need for work, that guy in that movie. (It's Pete Postlethwaite.)

What's going on when you forget a name or word basically has to do with the way we store information. When we're trying to think of something (like that guy from Inception, wasn't he in Jurassic Park, too … what's his name?), our memories tend to follow a series of pathways to get to the words we're looking for. Since there are a huge number of words in the English language, it makes sense that we use some more than others.

Those pathways are clear, paved, well-traveled roads. Pathways to other words are overgrown, muddy, bug-infested roads that we have to machete our way through, and that takes a little while. The words at the end are part of what's called our passive vocabulary, and since we don't use them all the time, we file them away and forget where we left them. Proper names are one of the most commonly forgotten combos, which explains why every movie and television show we watch has at least one of "those guys we've seen before" in it.

Misophonia

If the sound of someone chewing with their mouth open or chugging a can of beer makes you want to reach down their throat and rip out their intestines, you're not alone.

Researchers are finally looking into why some sounds trigger serious rage-hate in some people. The people who had misophonia knew they were being irrational (not about chewing with your mouth open — that's just wrong), but needed to develop their own sorts of coping methods to deal with the rage. The jury's still out on what's causing some people's misophonia, but early research has linked it to a very specific form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Other research seems to suggest that the brain of someone who can't stand the sound of markers on a whiteboard is working a bit differently than most brains. There's likely a sort of hyperconnectivity between the person's auditory system and the limbic system. The latter is where our emotions come from, which suggests you really, honestly are feeling that murderous rage, and you're not just imagining it. More recent research suggests misophonia doesn't just cause rage, either. It can also pique emotions like sadness, anxiety, and disgust, among others.

Motion sickness

Motion sickness can, and will, ruin anything. It's more than just a nuisance, especially if it means your road trips ends with a trip to get your car detailed. That smell never goes away, and while it might not make it any better to know why it happens, at least you'll have something to talk about while you're waiting to get your car back.

We don't completely understand what's going on that makes us turn a nice sort of blue-gray color on boats and in cars, but it may have something to do with the brain being unable to process conflicting information. You're sitting still, but your eyes and ears say you're flying down the highway at 10 mph over the speed limit. It's likely that conflicting data screws up a person's sense of balance, which leads to motion sickness. There's another theory that suggests it comes from your body's inability to predict how it has to move to maintain your center of balance and keep you from doing a faceplant.

As to why some people get it and some don't, there's some evidence for a genetic base for motion sickness. There may also be a link to migraines, as people who suffer from them are more likely to get motion sickness. Fortunately, NASA is working on a way to combat the queasy feeling some are susceptible to, so hopefully before long, the teacup ride will no longer be quite so terrifying. Because that's what science is for.