The brain may stop developing once we hit 25, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still surprise us. Each day, a weird, swirling, jumble of sensations and data comes whizzing past us. And our brain, being the adroit computer it is, handles all of it rather gracefully. But psychologists have come to learn many curious facts about how the hunk of gray tissue works.
Much of the psychological quirks we encounter on an everyday basis, even if we don’t know them, are products of temporary neuroplasticity. This, of course, is a fancy way of saying the brain adapts. The broad stroke details are mostly set — your level of intelligence, your preferences, how you speak, to name only a few. But the finer points tend to be more negotiable. Here are several deals our psychology makes on a regular basis.
4. The Mozart Effect
Our ability to concentrate, we tend to notice, is affected by the ambient noise that fills our environment. The catchy choruses of pop music burrow into our brains, disturbing concentration, while the delicate lilt of classical music immerses us in focus. It’s a casual observation, but an important one, and something that researchers have come to classify as the Mozart Effect.
A 1993 study first described the effect. Students that were played one of Mozart’s sonatas performed better on a 15-minute test than the students who heard verbal relaxation instructions or silence. In the years since the original study, countless other scientists have discovered a similar effect (albeit one unspecific to Mozart’s music). The latest research questions the effect of prolonged classical music exposure on children, and whether their developing brains absorb the effect in the long-run.
3. Phantom Limbs
For most people, the enduring sensation that an amputated limb is still attached is a foreign one. But the brain has lower standards than total amputation for it to forget, or rather, falsely believe, that a limb is in the proper place. Psychologically speaking, phantom limbs are a product of the brain’s continual rewiring in the face of new information.
A popular experiment that demonstrates this quick-change behavior involves a rubber hand and a hammer. Have a look for yourself:
The reason this effect is so dramatic is that as each hand is brushed simultaneously, the brain begins to pair the sensations as if both limbs were real. Scientists believe the neurological basis for this lies in how the body is mapped on the brain. The same neural network that houses your real limbs begins to govern false ones, too.
2. Highway Hypnosis
Endless roads stretching into the horizon are perfect specimens to understand highway hypnosis. But the familiar route you take each morning works just as well. Picture it: Each turn, each stoplight, each piece of scenery you pass on the way — they’re so entrenched in both your working and episodic memory (the ones that handle facts and experiences, respectively) you could get there in your sleep. It’s mindless.
But as you pull into the parking lot, or check the mile marker on your highway trek, you realize you have no recollection of the drive you just took. The slate is blank. What happened?
Highway hypnosis is an example of automaticity in cognitive psychology. Basically, your brain has gotten so good at driving (or whatever tasks you do day-in and day-out), it presses pause on the tape recorder. You’ve become so habituated to a certain task, the low-level functions and awareness normally required for it begin to fade.
Highway hypnosis is great for multitasking, but also the reason texting and driving is so dangerous: The second a disruption occurs, those low-level functions you spared now snap back. And not always in time.
1. The Tetris Effect
Habituation and adaptation underpin much of psychology. Basically, the brain is moved from its normal circumstances to a condition in which it’s confronted with strange stimuli that temporarily rewire its basic functions. Let the Tetris Effect explain.
The game itself is irrelevant — psychology just likes to give phenomena intriguing nicknames. When you play something for long enough, be it Tetris, chess, music, or any other patterned activity, the orientation of your entire world begins to fit those patterns. Suddenly you’re mentally organizing cereal boxes in the supermarket, or rearranging bricks.
“I stayed ‘for a week’ with a friend in Tokyo, and Tetris enslaved my brain. At night, geometric shapes fell in the darkness as I lay on loaned tatami floor space,” wrote Wired journalist Jeffrey Goldsmith in 1991, first describing the Tetris effect.
Goldsmith’s experience wasn’t unique, he found out. In the same year, Dr. Richard Haier, of the University of California Irvine, recruited subjects to play Tetris while their brains were scanned. Haier and his colleagues found a spike in cerebral glucose metabolic rates (GMR). The “high” Goldsmith found in Tetris was really his GMR on overdrive. His brain had set Tetris as the new normal. May he only see straight pieces.