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11 Weird Things Your Brain Does

Your brain doesn't always seem to have your best interests at heart.

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1. It overrules your digestive system for no good reason.

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You might have noticed how you often have "room for dessert" despite having just eaten a whopping great meal, and maybe even a starter. Despite us having marvellous complex digestive systems for controlling food intake and appetite, the brain regularly overrides it just because it likes the look of something.

Even if it makes no physiological sense, the brain overrules what the digestive system is telling it, leading to things like competitive eating, or eating disorders. Even having recently eaten makes no real difference to appetite if the brain can't remember it happening.

2. It hasn’t quite figured out how vehicles work yet.

Warner Bros

Humans move around a lot and have done for millions of years. Odd, then, that motion can sometimes make us sick.

When we walk/run, there's a distinct rocking up-down element to our motion because of the way our legs work. Our eyes detect this, as do the balance sensors in our ears. But the much smoother ride offered by cars or trains often mean our eyes think everything is nice and still, while our balance sensors insist we're moving at high speeds. This conflicting signals reach our brain and confuse the more primitive processing regions. And as far as they're concerned, the only thing that can cause this conflict of signals is poisoning. So, they set off the vomit reflex. Throwing up is essentially the brain's 'reboot'; a catch-all solution to any confusing problem.

3. It sometimes “forgets” to switch on our motor control when we wake up.

John Henry Fuseli / Public Domain / commons.wikimedia.org

When we enter deep REM sleep, our brain is just as active as when we're awake. Luckily, we don't act out our vivid dreams because the brain shuts down our motor control system as we enter deep sleep. Problems occur, however, when it "forgets" to reactivate it as we wake up.

Anyone who's ever had sleep paralysis knows how terrifying this is, and it's believed to result from our brains somehow overlooking the need to return control of our muscles to the smarter, conscious brain regions, possibly due to stress or poor signalling issues. It gets round to it eventually, but while it lasts, it's not a pleasant experience.

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4. It assumes the world is fair when it clearly isn’t.

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It may be a psychological defence against a hostile random universe, it may have evolved for some other reasons, but the Just World Hypothesis shows how our brains seem to default to an assumption that the world is intrinsically fair, and that good things are rewarded and bad punished.

This assumption can cause problems though, mostly because it's clearly wrong. As a result, we assume people with power or wealth deserve it, and same with those experiencing strife and hardships. So we end up allowing rich celebrities to be awful while demonising the poor and victimised.

5. It does what it's told far too easily.

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"I was only doing what I was told" may seem like a cop-out excuse for bad or shoddy behaviour, but evidence suggests it's far more valid than most would like to admit. Numerous studies over the decades have revealed that people will do alarmingly bad things to others if told to do so by a valid authority figure.

There's a lot of variation and other factors that determine how this plays out, but one theory is that when in a situation where we have to obey someone we recognise as superior to us, our brains put us in an "agentic state" where we don't consider ourselves responsible for what we're doing. As a result, we can do things we would normally balk at. Which is nice.

6. It doesn't know when it's being stupid.

NBC

If you've ever had a furious argument with someone who's clearly wrong but flat-out refuses to even consider this possibility, then you've experienced the Dunning-Kruger effect first hand. It describes the weird and irksome phenomenon where those with brains that are underpowered in terms of intelligence are correspondingly unable to assess their own abilities, or recognise others as knowing more than them, so they spout the most ridiculous guff with supreme but ill-deserved confidence.

Luckily for them, the average human brain is strongly persuaded by demonstrations of confidence. This explains a lot of modern politics, when you think about it.

7. It edits memories to make us look better.

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Most people would assume that our memories are accurate records of things that have happened to us, and they often are. However, they can also be really rather different to what actually happened. Our brains actually tweak and alter memories all the time. Recreating partial recollections, hearing differing accounts, imagining different outcomes, these and more all warp and modify an existing memory until it's quite different to what actually happened.

A worryingly common theme is for memories to be changed to make us feel and look better, suggesting an egocentric bias to our recollections. Our own brains seem to work hard to provide us with an unrealistic idea of how cool we are.

8. It can't really do much with the sense of taste.

Instagram: @mikekotlarski

Given that it's one of the five main senses (although there are in fact lots more), our brain can't seem to do much with taste. It's widely regarded as the weakest of the five senses, and while of course certain things can taste very vivid, much of what we perceive as taste needs the smell or even vision to back it up. Studies suggest that a blindfolded person wearing nose plugs struggle to tell apples from potatoes and onions using taste alone.

Further proof of this comes from studies on wine tasting, suggesting that much of the delicate flavours the experts detect are all in the mind. Drinking too much will do that to you.

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9. Being angry makes it alarmingly optimistic.

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When something makes you angry, it clearly has many effects on your body and brain, but one of the less obvious is that it makes you more optimistic. Anger has been shown to stimulate the areas of your brain that control motivation, compelling you to "deal with" whatever it is infuriating you. But it also distorts our perception of the risks involved, making us think we can deal with things we'd normally be sure were beyond us, hence a sufficiently angry person can end up challenging someone four times their size to a fight.

10. It thinks embarrassment is a genuine threat.

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The brain is a rather paranoid organ and has numerous complex systems in place for recognising and avoiding dangers and threats. It's also evolved to desire being liked and accepted by others.

However, these important but different functions tend to overlap often, resulting in us experiencing genuine fear and alarm at the possibility of looking foolish or inadequate in front of other people. As a result, despite there being no actual physical danger, the very thought of public speaking is enough to activate the fight-or-flight response in some, meaning they experience the physical responses that would normally be reserved for the sudden appearance of a deadly predator. No audience should be that bad.

11. It keeps seeing faces where there aren’t any.

Instagram: @grungia

Our brains do a lot of work with vision, and many parts of the brain are dedicated to processing types of visual information as a result. One of these parts seems dedicated to recognising and processing faces. Humans get a lot of information from each other's faces, so this makes sense.

However, the brain seems to have something of an "anything goes" approach when it comes to what counts as a face, so we end up seeing faces in bits of wood, grilled foods, space rocks, and even things as basic as simple arrangements of punctuation :)

Dean Burnett's new book The Idiot Brain, is published by Guardian Faber and is available now.

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