Image: Daniele Oberti, Creative Commons.
Unintentionally, I think I might have started something. After my previous post, in which I discuss a weird brain moment my sister had (one of many, I assure you…) it appears that several of you have taken this as a cue to inundate me with your strange brain goings-on, followed by something along the lines of ‘explain, please?!’ Take this one, which my dad recounted to me in an email:
Now, I’ll tell you something I’ve discovered as a train spotter (I know that’s what you call me!) – very strange but like an odd sort of dyslexia.
So, an engine with number 37321 goes past.
I say to myself in my head, ‘that’s engine no. 37231.
I write down engine no. 37321 how do you explain that?! I see it correctly, my brain notes it incorrectly, but my eyes transpose it onto paper in the correct order that I saw it. How can that be?
This certainly intrigued me. It’s a great example of how the brain is always tinkering ‘behind the scenes’, carefully editing and filtering information in that brief time between your brain receiving information and you consciously perceiving it.
Remember when brain-training games first appeared as a new craze? If yes, you’ve probably encountered the sort of test where you’re presented with a series of words written in different colours, and your simple task is to read the words aloud.
TRAIN, BAKERY, HAMSTER
Pretty straight forward, but when you see GREEN written in red, chances are unless you’re paying close attention, you’ll blurt out ‘red’ instead. This is something strange called the Stroop Interference, and it shows just how powerful the influence of vision – our primary sense – is.
And my educated guess is that something similar was going on with my confused dad. Despite the incorrect number that he’d consciously perceived (the colour name written) his brain overrode this and replicated the image it had already seen and unconsciously registered: the correct number (in our other e.g, the colour the word was written in).
With this case, I suspect – and I may be wrong here – that the focus was largely on the shape that the numbers 37321 made, rather than what the numbers actually were, especially since he was physically replicating it by writing them down. The visual override here is that the brain was simply reproducing on paper the shape ‘37321‘ it has just seen, bypassing the conscious numerical though (and subtly different shape) of ‘37231‘.
But, Stroop Trainspotting Interference aside, I would just like to emphatically reiterate this: I am not a doctor. Hell, I’m not even a medical student! I haven’t even graduated and received my extortionately expensive piece of paper saying ‘congratulations, you know lots of temporarily true facts about brains.’ (For £27000 I am wholeheartedly expecting the most gosh-darned fancy piece of paper I have ever seen in my life. They better have started working on it already…) And even if I were any of these things, like every other human, I am a mountain of ignorance: the things I don’t know will always, always outweigh the things I think I know.
So, while it’s not my business to know everything, I very much make it my ponderous business to be fascinated by the strangeness of the brain. So keep the tales of neuro-quirks coming, the weirder the better; if only because, like some neuro-equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, they intrigue me and tickle my grey matter. I can’t give you a definitive answer, but I can certainly share my best thoughts.*
*Hopefully this should be obvious, but while this is all fun, if you think you might genuinely have a medical problem please, please go and consult a doctor.