Over the years, scientists have uncovered many of the human brain’s mysteries and shortcomings that were securely hidden in our psyche.
Today, we invite you on a journey inside your own head to find out what makes your consciousness work.
1. We’re constantly altering our memories
We tend to see our memories as small movies or video clips. Things that lie on some “shelf” inside our brain, safe and unalterable. But, as it turns out, recollections of past events changeevery time they pass before our mind’s eye.
Their content is influenced by memory blackouts and by events that took place in themore recent past. For example, you don’t have clear recollections of all the people who attended a family get-together a couple of years ago, but since your aunt never misses events of this kind, your mind eventually includes her in the memories — even if she was absent on that particular occasion.
2. We can only have a limited number of friends
Psychologists and sociologists have come up with something called the Dunbar’s number — the maximum number of people with whom a person can maintain close ties. So, even if you have thousands of ’friends’ on Facebook, you can only have meaningful communication with 50-200 of them.
3. We feel happier when we’re busy
Imagine that you’re at the airport, and you need to pick up the luggage. In ten minutes, you reach the claim area and immediately collect your suitcase.
And now, a slightly different situation. You find a shortcut and manage to get to the baggage carousel in just two minutes. Then, you spend the remaining eight minutes waiting for your suitcase to appear.
In both cases, it took you no more than ten minutes to pick up the luggage. However, in the second scenario, you probably felt more impatient and dissatisfied. This is due to the fact that our brain dislikes being idle and prefers to stay busy instead. And, for every task completed, it rewards us with dopamine, the hormone of happiness.
4. We can memorize only 3-4 things at a time
Studies show that our brain can store no more than 3-4 pieces of information at once. In addition, this info can only be preserved for 20-30 seconds. After this time, we forget it unless we keep refreshing it in our memory over and over again.
For instance, you are driving and talking on the phone (don’t do that!). The person on the other end gives you a number, but you can’t write it down so you try to memorize it instead. You repeat the number again and again, so as to preserve it in your short-term memory until you can disconnect and write it down.
By the way, the fact that we find it easier to remember 3-4 pieces of information at a time explains why so many things consist of 3-4 digits or lines. This applies to phone and credit card numbers and even to the paragraph you’re reading!
5. Our visual perception of things differs from their actual appearance
Our brain constantly processes information received from sensory organs. It analyzes visual images and interprets them in a form accessible to us.
For example, the reason for us being able to read a text quickly lies in the fact that we’re not actually reading it. We simply notice the first and last letters of each word, and intuitively fill in the rest, based on our past experience. As the saying goes: “It dsoen’t mtater in waht odrer the ltetres apepar in a wrod, if the fsirt and the lsat lteters remian in palce.”
See? We look at groups of jumbled letters yet perceive them as proper words! And this doesn’t just happen with texts.
6. We spend 30% of our time daydreaming
Imagine you’re at work studying an important document. Suddenly, you realize that you’ve just read the same sentence three times in a row. Instead of analyzing the text, your mind was wandering.
Scientists from the University of California say that every day we spend 30% of our time daydreaming. Sometimes (for instance, during long trips) this share increases to as much as 70%, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Studies show that people who love to wander in the clouds tend to be more creative. Also, they’re better at solving problems and getting rid of stress.
7. We can’t ignore 3 things in life: food, sex and danger
Have you ever wondered why people always stop to look at the aftermath of a road accident? Even though bystanders find the sight distressing, they continue to gawk.
Such curiosity is triggered by our “ancient brain” — a section responsible for survival. Its function is to constantly scan the environment, posing (and answering) 3 questions: “Can I eat that? Can I have sex with that? Can I be killed by that?” Food, sex, and danger are still the things fundamental to our staying alive, so we can’t help but pay attention to them.
8. We need as much choice as possible
As part of a recent study, scientists set up two tables in a supermarket. On the first table, they placed 6 types of jam, on the second 24. As a result, 60% of customers stopped to try jams at table #1. However, when it came to making purchases, table #2 proved 4 times more popular.
Why did this happen? As we already know, our brain can only focus on 3-4 things at a time. Therefore, making final decisions is easier when there’s a limited number of options (i.e., 6 types of jam).
Nevertheless, we always crave variety. We love to browse through a wide range of products — that’s why we’re more likely to stop by the table with 24 types of jam (although, in the end, we’ll still go for the same brand we’ve bought many times before).
9. Most of our decisions are unconscious
We’d like to believe that all our actions are the result of careful planning, but in reality, 60-80% of our everyday decisions are made subconsciously. We don’t think about doing those things, we just do them.
Every second, our brain receives millions of units of data. To prevent over-exhaustion, some of the work gets relegated to the subconscious. Pocketing the keys, turning off the lights, closing the front door — we perform such actions automatically, without thinking.
On the downside, this often leads to self-doubt. For instance, when we arrive at the office and suddenly begin to fret over whether or not we’ve turned the iron off.
10. There’s no such thing as multitasking
Studies show that we can only perform one cognitive activity at a time. Try talking and reading at once or writing a letter while listening to an audiobook. Most likely, nothing good will come of it — our brain just can’t focus on two tasks simultaneously.
However, there is an exception. If the second activity is purely physical and automatic (the type of thing that we perform on a day-to-day basis), then it is possible to combine both tasks. For example, you can talk on the phone while walking. But, even then, there’s is a good chance of tripping and losing track of conversation.