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That One Spooky Thing (Part 3.1) April 7, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , , ,


Continuing with the way our brains impose patterns on random noise…

I want to discuss an important idea called “priming”

First, fill in the blank to make an English word:  S O _ P

So what word did you fill in?  If you are like most people, you filled in the word “soup”.  At least like most people who have seen the word “eat” up at the top of the page, which otherwise has no relation to the question you were asked, or anything else in this post.  If I had put the word “wash” up there, you might have been more likely to fill it in as “soap”.

This is another facet of pattern recognition called “priming”.  (Another huge subject that I am just touching on here.)  Our brain already latches on to easy familiar patterns.  Like things that we see a lot, or things that we think about a lot (which is why devout Catholics see the Madonna in random smudges instead of a pop singer). But our brain also can latch on to something recent in the environment, even something totally irrelevant.  (As in the example above.)  It’s possible you might not even be really fully aware of the thing that primed your response.

So combining our tendency to look for patterns together with the way we can be influenced by priming,  it’s fairly easy for us to convince ourselves we are hearing or seeing something that isn’t actually there.

In my last post I talked about finding visual patterns, but it’s not just visual noise that we do this with.  We do the same thing with regular old audio noise.  Our brain may reconfigure the original sound signals received by our ears, because our brain wants to find familiar patterns.

This video is a simple example, called The McGurk Effect.

First listen to it while watching it.  What syllable is he saying?  Most people hear “Da Da Da..”

Now listen to it with your eyes closed.  He’s clearly saying “Ba Ba Ba…”  Now watch it with the sound muted.  His lips are saying “Ga Ga Ga..”  But even though I know he’s saying “Ba Ba Ba,” if I’m watching him I just can’t get my brain to hear it that way.

What’s happening is that when you are seeing him talk, his mouth is clearly NOT saying “Ba Ba Ba” so your brain refuses to register it that way.  Your brain wants familiar patterns, and vocals that don’t match the image aren’t familiar.

Priming – Led Zeppelin – backwards

Go listen to this video on YouTube (not embedded because spoilers).  But here’s the challenge: once the video reaches the 0:35 mark, shrink it and just listen to the audio only, no video.


What did you hear?  When I do that, I just hear a bunch of gibberish.  Random noise, no meaning.  Now go back and listen again, and this time watch the lyrics that the video gives you.  For me, and for most people who listen to it with suggested lyrics, the lyrics about Satan just pop out at you.

People like to play with this effect with misheard lyrics videos.  Here’s one of my favorites, spoofing O Fortuna from Carmina Burana:

I actually know the real lyrics to this song from memory.  But when I watch this version, I hear the mangled lyrics as shown on the screen anyway, even when I try to hear it as the Latin words that I know.

So… the next time you hear or see something, realize that what you think you perceived might not have been what was actually there.  It might just have been your brain trying to make sense of meaningless random noise.

Other posts in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3 
Part 3.2
(Some examples in this post come from Michael Shermer’s talks, and the wonderful book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.)



1. sirtj - April 9, 2014

I first thought of soap. Perhaps that says something about my parents’ disciplinary methods.


2. M.M.J. Gregory - April 9, 2014

I thought of soap as well. Hmm.
Anyhow, I love the examples you used. This series has been great.


ubi dubium - April 9, 2014

Thanks! I have at least two more entries to write, but I generally let them bubble around in my head for awhile before I finally get them into pixels.


sirtj - April 10, 2014

Soap bubbles. I see what you did there.


3. Cole - July 9, 2014

Related: In one study, belief in the paranormal correlated with 1) a greater tendency to make positive identifications or guesses and 2) fewer correct identifications when subjects were presented with photographs distorted with computer-generated noise.

Click to access EJP%201994.pdf


ubi dubium - July 10, 2014

I remember Susan talking about this subject at TAM. There’s so much out there on this topic that it’s hard to boil it all down.



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