Wednesday, November 25, 2009

That’s so weird, I just heard about that the other day...

Have you ever learned a new word or obscure fact and then within the span of a day or two you hear about it again? And then again? This happens to me all the time which isn't surprising since I read a lot and am always looking up words in the dictionary. It happens to you too I bet.

It's called Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. My friend Leigh found an article on the website Damn Interesting, The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, that explains how and why our brains sift through information we are exposed to on a daily basis and bump up the similarities to make us more aware of them. I find this to be fascinating:
The reason for this is our brains’ prejudice towards patterns. Our brains are fantastic pattern recognition engines, a characteristic which is highly useful for learning, but it does cause the brain to lend excessive importance to unremarkable events. Considering how many words, names, and ideas a person is exposed to in any given day, it is unsurprising that we sometimes encounter the same information again within a short time. When that occasional intersection occurs, the brain promotes the information because the two instances make up the beginnings of a sequence. What we fail to notice is the hundreds or thousands of pieces of information which aren’t repeated, because they do not conform to an interesting pattern. This tendency to ignore the “uninteresting” data is an example of selective attention.

In point of fact, coincidences themselves are usually just an artifact of perception. We humans tend to underestimate the probability of coinciding events, so our expectations are at odds with reality. And non-coincidental events do not grab our attention with anywhere near the same intensity, because coincidences are patterns, and the brain actually stimulates us for successfully detecting patterns… hence their inflated value. In short, patterns are habit-forming.

But when we hear a word or name which we just learned the previous day, it often feels like more than a mere coincidence. This is because Baader-Meinhof is amplified by the recency effect, a cognitive bias that inflates the importance of recent stimuli or observations. This increases the chances of being more aware of the subject when we encounter it again in the near future.

Now I'm wondering how many of you will hear the term Baader-Meinhof this week, or even just experience the phenomenon. Report back...

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