Randy Rieland in Smithsonian:
The human brain is a remarkable, stunningly complex organ. And yet, scientists are discovering something about it that the likes of Harry Houdini and other great magicians have known for a long time—the brain can be surprisingly easy to trick. That’s because in order to be so efficient, it has evolved to create shortcuts in response to outside stimuli, such as light or sound. But those shortcuts and the consistency with which the brain follows them can also make it vulnerable to deception. Take, for example, recent research by Stanford scientists exploring a new way to fight jet lag. For a while, researchers have known that exposure to light before taking a trip can help your body adjust to the changes in your sleep cycles that come with traveling across time zones. The most common preventive treatment involves sitting in front of bright lights for hours at a time during the day.
…Here are three other recent studies in which researchers have found how the brain can be deceived.
…Don’t watch what you eat: If you can’t see what you’re eating, you’re less likely to eat as much. That’s the conclusion of scientists at the University of Konstanz in Germany after asking 90 students to eat three different flavors of ice cream.
… Beware of overthinking: A study at the University of Southern California found that if you want to develop a new habit, you should avoid thinking too much about it. The researchers asked a group of people to watch a video that shows how to make sushi. And they determined that when people were able to watch the video over and over without any other specific instructions, they learned the sushi-making process better than those who were told to try to remember what came next.
… Is someone there?: Do you ever have that feeling where you can sense the presence of another person in the room with you when no one else is around? Well, scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology say it’s likely a case of your brain perceiving something that’s not there. That’s based, in part, on research done with a group of people who were blindfolded, given ear plugs and had their fingers connected to a device. The subjects were told to move the device, and when they did, a robotic arm poked them in the back. Because the poke was synchronized with their movements, the subjects’ brains recognized it as something they had done to themselves. But when the researchers caused a slight delay between when the people moved the device and when they were poked, the study participants had a different reaction.