5 Impossible Things Your Brain Can Do
You don’t have to be a savant to have savant-like abilities.
Posted June 20, 2018 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
In her post "Tap Into the Inner Genius You Didn’t Know You Had," Dr. Chris Gilbert described Acquired Savant Syndrome, a rare condition that sometimes occurs after trauma to the Left Anterior Temporal Lobe (LATL). Dr. Gilbert explained that a few patients with damage to the LATL suddenly develop artistic or musical talents that may exist in all of us, but are inhibited by a healthy LATL.
Fortunately, it’s possible for all of us—or, at least all who are females of a certain age (more about that later)—to bring out extraordinary abilities that we never knew our brains possessed without damaging our brains, or even temporarily suppressing the LATL by overworking it with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), as Dr. Gilbert reported in her blog.
Here are five examples. Four will work for everyone; the other only works, as far as we know, for ovulating females.
1. Astonishing Memory Feats
If I asked you to memorize this list of 10 words, you’d normally have to repeat them in your head over and over many times before you achieved 100-percent recall. Even after accomplishing the tiring feat, after a few hours, you’d probably only remember a total of two to three words taken from the beginning and end of the list (due to what cognitive psychologists call recency and primacy effects, where information at the beginning and end of a series “interferes” with recall of information in the middle of a series).
ladybug, comb, oatmeal, lawyer, coal, stamp, knife, worm, bell, lettuce
This difficulty remembering words stems from the limitations of our verbal memory, because the linguistic portion of our brains, where we store arbitrary lists of words, has limited “buffer” (storage register) size.
But our visual brains have vastly more storage than our linguistic brains. Prove this to yourself by conjuring up an image of the inside of your house or apartment. Notice that as you mentally walk through the residence, you can remember where every room is, and even “see” details of what is in each room, such as beds, furniture, and art hanging on walls. That’s a huge amount of information you’ve just recalled, far greater than that contained in this entire article.
Thus, when you store information visually, as opposed to linguistically, you can recall it much, much better.
And that’s the secret to flawlessly remembering each of the 10 words above. Instead of repeating them in your head as words, convert each of them to images—and not just any images, but extremely vivid pictures. For instance, conjure up an image of a 6-foot-long orange comb instead of a boring 6-inch-long black one, or make the knife an ivory-handled carving knife with a wicked blade instead of a ho-hum table knife.
Now, as you stroll through the visual memory of your residence, mentally place a visual representation of each object on the list in a different room or distinct location, such as a closet.
For instance, place a large ladybug, say 3 feet in diameter to make it really vivid, where the welcome mat by the front door lies (or would lie, if you had a welcome mat). Then deposit the large, orange comb on the floor just inside the front door. Continue to place each successive object on the list throughout your house, preferably in the order you would walk through your house if some asked you to take them on a guided tour. As you drop each object in its unique location, pause to form an image of the object in its new location.
When you’re done, take another stroll through your house and “see” the new objects you’ve left in different places. You should have no trouble visualizing each and every object, even if you suddenly transport yourself to an arbitrary room so that you’re not recalling the objects according to their order on the list. Quite a memory feat! You can’t even recall all the letters of the alphabet without reciting them in order. If you don’t believe me, try reciting the alphabet backwards.
Tie a 2- or 3-foot piece of string (or dental floss) through the handle of a coffee cup and dangle the cup in front of you, keeping it as still as you can. Then, using only your mind, will the cup to sway forward and back. (Don’t cheat by consciously moving the cup.) After 20-30 seconds, you will see the cup start to move forward and back. Then, again using only your mind, order the cup to stop. Then repeat the exercise, except this time, by willing the cup to sway like a pendulum left and right.
No, you don’t literally have telekinesis, but this experiment—which eerily feels like telekinesis—proves that your unconscious exerts extraordinary control over your muscles, causing them to contract in subtle ways that produce tiny, but precise movements that move the cup. Although you probably weren’t aware of which muscles you contracted to cause the cup to sway, your body knew what to do through a process called implicit memory, in which our brains unconsciously file away enormous amounts of information, such as which muscle groups will cause which kinds of subtle motions.
Unconscious Essential Reads
Perhaps such unconscious movements are what originally gave rise to the concept of telekinesis in the first place.
Bats navigate in the dark by listening to returns from ultrasonic clicks, chirps, and tones. But we all have an inner bat that can also echolocate. Find a long stick or pole with a hard tip (metal is ideal) and a friend to spot for you, then go to an uncarpeted area of your house—or a place with a hard surface outside your house—close your eyes and tap the stick in front of you, as blind people do. Observe that you can get a rough sense of the presence of large nearby objects and even their distance, just by listening to the clicks.
If you’re like most sighted people who do this for the first time, you will just “know” when you are getting close to a wall or large object without knowing exactly how you know. This “knowing without knowing how” is another example of implicit learning from the countless number of times you have unconsciously registered the change in the sound of your footsteps as you neared a wall. But if you carefully listen to the clicks of your stick, you’ll start to notice that clicks made from tapping the floor a few feet from a wall have a full, hollow quality, due to slight echoes that immediately follow the original click of contact between the floor and stick. The echoes from the stick tapping the floor follow too quickly to distinguish as distinct replicas of the original click, but they add slightly to the original click sound nonetheless.
If you tap the stick within a few inches of a wall or large object, the click will sound “crisper” with a somewhat higher pitch. Some people report that clicks very close to walls sound “deader” than clicks further away from walls because they contain fewer echoes and overtones.
4. “Seeing” Behind You
A close cousin of echolocation, sound shadowing, lets you sense when someone—or a large something, like a predator—is right behind you, even when that someone (or something) makes no sound.
Stand with your eyes closed on a carpeted surface (or another sound-deadening surface, such as grass or beach sand), and have a friend sneak up behind you so that you don’t hear their footsteps, breathing, or clothes rustling. The experiment works best when you have a conspicuous sound source, such as a radio, located about 10 feet behind you, to create background noise.
As your friend approaches from behind, even though you can’t see or hear them directly, you should be able to “feel” the person’s proximity by the sound shadow (blockage of sound) that they cast. If you pay close attention to the sound shadow, you’ll perceive it has two parts: a slight lowering of volume and a deadening of echoes of the radio noise off of surfaces behind you. These two effects become increasingly obvious as the person gets closer to you.
Our unconscious ability to sense whether someone is behind us may give rise to the overworked phrases in thrillers and mysteries: “He had a sense he was being tailed,” or “She felt someone’s eyes watching her.”
Although the perception of sound shadows, like echolocation, is an example of implicit memory, it may also have a hardwired component due to its powerful survival value, helping us fill in a large blind spot behind us that predatory animals (and nasty humans) could otherwise exploit.
5. Spotting Hidden Snakes
Speaking of detecting predatory animals, here’s one about sensing the presence of snakes that only applies, as far as we know, to ovulating women in the “luteal phase."
Dr. Mistaka and Dr. Shibasaki of the Primate Research Institute at Osaka University published a 2012 study, in the prestigious journal Nature, showing that ovulating women can spot snakes hidden in photographs significantly faster than non-ovulating controls can spot the same slithering reptiles.
The authors suggested that attention to threats, such as snakes, increases under hormonal influences, in order to prevent lethal injury when pregnancy is likely. Such increased vigilance presumably had adaptive value during evolution, increasing the odds of successful reproduction.
This ability could come in very handy for single women active in the dating scene. These women could simply meet new men only when ovulating, so that they could tell right away which men are—and are not—snakes!