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March 24, 2014

Why our brains just cannot let this mystery go

(Continued)

The study of illusions gives us a glimpse at the trickery our brain uses to create, below our conscious awareness, our continuous sense of the world. Our brain is a kind of detective for our conscious mind.

But it's the specific nature of the disappearance of Flight 370 that pings some of our most basic cognitive drives. In their book "The Scientist in the Crib," Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl write, "Babies become interested in, almost obsessed with, hiding-and-finding games when they are about a year old. There is the timeless appeal of peekaboo. … Babies also spontaneously undertake solo investigations of the mysterious Case of the Disappearing Object."

So, from our earliest days, we focus our attention on objects that are hidden, and then revealed. This consuming play, they write, "contributes to babies' ability to solve the big, deep problems of disappearance, causality, and categorization." No wonder we're watching CNN's nonstop coverage of a disappearing object.

We may be especially sensitive to seeing what's hidden because for our ancestors discovering food and evading threat were crucial to survival. Ramachandran writes that our visual system "evolved to detect predators behind foliage." Discovering hidden things is so central to our evolutionary survival that when we do so, "we get an internal 'Aha!' sensation." This "zap of pleasure" comes about, he explains, because our visual centers are wired to our limbic reward system. Without the reward, he says, we'd give up too easily on difficult problems. This makes it easier to understand why all over the world people have an irresistible urge to scour satellite images of vast oceans, seeking the kick of being the one to point and say, "There it is!"

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