Understanding the Brain’s Tendency to Manufacture Information

Did you know that your brain regularly fills in for missing information, much of the time without your even knowing that this is going on? It’s one of the marvelous little efficiencies of the magnificent organ beneath your skull. I refer to it as the imagination “filling in the blanks.”

Since it happens so very quickly and without conscious knowledge or intent, it can be difficult to identify this quirky capability. But illusions are a fun way to acquaint yourself with this particular hidden talent. The ability is, of course, quite adaptive in some circumstances—like when survival depends on quick decisions about fight or flight. But, like most things in life, this extraordinary tendency to “fill in the blanks” has a down side, too. Think back on the last really bad misunderstanding you experienced in a relationship with someone you care about or whose opinion you value. Dollars to doughnuts, the brain’s sneaky tendency to “fill in the blanks” was somehow involved.

In many parts of Europe, bicycles share the road and are a much greater part of daily traffic congestion than they are in a typical U.S. city. Because cyclists were involved in so many accidents, the British government undertook a public safety campaign. They developed a series of ads designed to make people aware of the information they miss as part of the stimulus overload that is so integrally woven into the fabric of modern urban living. One of the advertisements developed as part of this campaign asks viewers to test their awareness by counting the number of times a basketball is passed from one team member to another. Most viewers get the count right but miss the “moonwalking bear.” The point is, of course, that we all miss a whole lot of information much of the time because our brains are busy “filling in the blanks” with information extrapolated from expectations.

One of the really interesting aspects of this incredible capacity for making up missing information is that it usually comes with a great subjective sense of certainty, and when we act on that certainty we can get ourselves into trouble—by sideswiping a cyclist we just didn’t see but were quite certain we had checked all the mirrors and blind spots, or by accusing a lover, spouse, friend, or child and reacting without first inquiring and getting all the relevant details.

Another important function of the brain’s awesome capacity to fill in the unknowns with what is expected is the placebo effect. The placebo effect happens when a chemically inert substance has a therapeutic effect because the person expects it to. Most medications, even ones well documented to have powerful chemical effects on the body or in the brain, owe some of their potency to the power of expectancy. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (pictures of the brain at work) demonstrate that the placebo effect is powerful because the brain actually reacts to the expectation with the very same neurochemical changes that would happen if the active drug were given. Some proportion of the effectiveness of the meds we take on a regular basis like over-the-counter pain killers, or even caffeine and alcohol, have the effect they have because we expect them to. Researchers have the brain pictures to prove it. Amazing isn’t it?

Once you decide to tame your brain’s wild tendencies to “fill in the blanks,” you’ll start noticing, without even trying, times when you do it. And every time you do catch yourself “filling in the blanks,” you can silently congratulate yourself on your increasing awareness. Just as it will be impossible for you to look at the video clip again without seeing the moonwalking bear, it will become more and more difficult for you to imagine you really know what you don’t—because you’ll be increasingly aware of your brain’s tricky tendencies. Awareness precedes change, after all.

Related articles:
The Imagination Is a Powerful Tool
Changing Brain Chemistry, Changing Paradigms

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sara Rosenquist, PhD, ABPP, therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ted bates

    ted bates

    February 28th, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    The mind really is a terrible thing to waste, because look at all of the amazing things that it can do!

  • Psychotherapist New York City

    Psychotherapist New York City

    February 28th, 2012 at 8:18 PM

    What type of information has been filled by brain.

  • Scarlett H

    Scarlett H

    February 28th, 2012 at 8:52 PM

    I have never been any good at being able to see those things in those optical illusions. Does just looking at the give me a heads up or do I have to be able to see what I am supposed to be seeing in order for my brain to learn to fill in the blanks?

  • emily d

    emily d

    February 29th, 2012 at 11:54 PM

    hmm interesting…this full in the blanks work by the brain seems to have both positive and negative results.but being aware is vmezgremely important and oils cost someone dear in a tight situation so training ourselves to stop the fill in the blanks all the time seems like a great idea…!

  • THerese

    THerese

    March 1st, 2012 at 5:29 AM

    why not “training” instead of “taming”? Isn’t that the essence of what we are doing?

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