The Norman Transcript

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March 24, 2014

Why our brains just cannot let this mystery go

(Continued)

The disappearance of Flight 370 pings some of our most basic cognitive drives.

Gopnik and colleagues say that studying how babies engage with the world illustrates what they call our "explanatory drive." It is, they write, as fundamental as the drive for food or sex: "[W]e look beyond the surface of the world and try to infer its deeper patterns. We look for the underlying, hidden causes of events. We try to figure out the nature of things." They describe how, "When we're presented with a puzzle, a mystery, a hint of a pattern, something that doesn't quite make sense, we work until we find a solution." We feel dissatisfaction when we remain baffled and feel what they call a "distinctive joy" when it all snaps into place. We have endlessly pounced on clues about Flight 370 — two passengers with stolen passports, a pilot with a flight simulator in his home, the presence of lithium batteries in the cargo hold — and consecutively concluded the plane was lost due to terrorism, pilot suicide, or catastrophic mechanical failure. But no wonder this story grips us: It is as if a whole village has been eaten, and there is a predator we haven't been able to detect.

Being human, when it comes to our innate drives, we are seriously prone to overdoing it. In "The Invisible Gorilla," Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons write, "Our minds are built to detect meaning in patterns, to infer causal relationships from coincidences, and to believe earlier events cause later ones." Our extraordinary pattern-seeing abilities serve us well but also lead us astray. "At times, we perceive patterns where none exist, and misperceive them when they do exist."

This perhaps is why on CNN you can hear experts debate whether some satellite imagery supposedly identifying remains of the plane truly shows its debris, other ocean junk, or glints from the sun.

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