60-Second Science

Brain Seeks Patterns Where None Exist

The brain will find patterns or images where none really exist. Relaxation exercises lowered the chances of finding a pattern that wasn't really there. Adam Hinterthuer reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

When we feel like we don't have command of our own fate, our brains often invent patterns that offer a sense of self-control. Some folks knock on wood or step over cracks in the sidewalk. Scientists call this illusory pattern perception. Work published in the October 3rd issue of the journal Science offers a look inside our heads as they try to make us feel less helpless.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin devised six experiments to test students' reactions to different situations of uncertainty. One experiment mimicked the stock market, while another asked students to search for images in television static. Time and again, students saw images where there were none and found stock patterns that didn't exist. The authors then asked students to perform self-affirmation exercises instead of looking for external design. These exercises calmed them and increased their capacity to see, well, reality. But if you're not changing your socks or shaving because it clearly helps your favorite team, go right ahead. Some unkempt fan in Tampa Bay has to be the reason behind the Rays winning the American League East.

—Adam Hinterthuer 

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