The bizarre world of the McGurk Effect: How your brain lies to you every day

Weird Fact #22: Your eyes can cause your ears to hear things that aren’t there.

Your brain is pretty cool but your really shouldn't trust it.

Your brain is pretty cool but you really shouldn’t trust it.

There’s a great old line that most of us have used at one point or another in the heat of an argument: “Who am I going to believe? You or my own ears?”

After your mind is completely blown by today’s weird fact, you might never ask that question again or at least you won’t be sure of the answer.

First, a little background. Many years ago a researcher named Harry McGurk was testing the effects of mothers’ voices on their babies because… well…because scientists lead boring lives. At one point McGurk redubbed the voice of a mother saying one syllable over video of her saying a similar but different syllable. At first glance, the result would seem to be something like one of those hilariously retranslated kung fu movies. But oddly McGurk heard something pretty similar to the sound he saw the woman say, NOT the sound he actually redubbed. It was so bizarre that his first thought was to recheck the tape. But it was playing correctly. His ears however were not hearing it correctly. Instead, he was hearing something closer to what his eyes told him she was saying.

What McGurk had accidentally stumbled upon remains among the most extraordinary audio/visual illusions I’ve ever experienced. He published it in a paper called “Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices.”

You can test this truly strange effect on yourself here and here and here and here and here.

Now, if you are tired of people “bahing” “gahing” at you like you are a five-month-old, you might take a brief moment to think about the awesome implications of this perceptual effect and why it is so utterly freaky. It’s not just your conscious mind making the assumption that the syllable is what’s shown. You ACTUALLY hear the other syllable or at least some middle “compromise” syllable that your brain has decided upon. By simply closing your eyes, you will hear something completely different. Open them and the sound will change back.

We tend to think of our senses as separate feeds of raw information pouring into our pre-frontal cortex but they are not. What you think you see and hear is actually filtered and combined into a single coherent whole before it ever reaches your consciousness and its adjusted along the way for your listening and viewing pleasure. This is why, no matter how hard you try and no matter how much you know about the effect, you can’t hear the real syllable being said as long as your eyes see something else. Your brain simply won’t allow it because it doesn’t make sense. At an unconscious level, it alters the sound for you so what you are seeing syncs up with what you are hearing and it does this even if you consciously know what the real sound is and what you should hear. Your eyes still override your ears and send you a false message.

Before you are too hard on your brain for blatantly getting caught in a lie like this, you should remember that it is the result of millions of years of evolution, most of which took place well before the invention of video tape that psychologists could redub to fool babies (or other psychologists). In fact, your brain is just doing what it is supposed to do. It knows that lips which make a “gah” or “dah” shape shouldn’t sound like “bah” so it assumes, not unreasonably, that your ears made an error, one which it helpfully fixes for you.

But the very fact it can correct this error and change the sound before you mentally “hear” it is simply incredible. Like Neo in “The Matrix,” we are left to question whether what we are seeing and hearing is actually reality and we don’t even need the pain of having that creepy prong shoved into the back of our cerebellum — nor the even worse agony of watching Keanu Reeves attempt to convey human emotion.

The fact is that your brain lies to you every day. The theater of the mind shows you not what your senses perceive but an overall picture it develops for you based on the best information available.

And if there are any parts that don’t seem to make sense?

Well, those wind up on the cutting room floor.


Perplexing ‘yips’ disorder continues to mystify sports psychologists

Weird Fact #10: For decades, a peculiar mental tic has been ruining the careers of top athletes and no one quite knows why.

pitcherIn 1990, New York Mets catcher Mackey Sasser appeared to have a productive career ahead of him. He hit over .300 that year and was solid defensively behind the plate.

But then, Sasser began to experience an extremely unusual problem.

He couldn’t get the ball back to the pitcher.

He had trouble throwing to his hurler, often pumping his arm several times or walking towards the mound a few steps before he could make the toss. The embarrassing issue wasn’t physical. Weirdly, Sasser didn’t have an injury. He could still hit. Incredibly, he could even still take down base stealers with a quick throw across the diamond.

But a simple toss to the pitcher’s mound was a challenge.

Eventually, the eerie anomaly shortened his otherwise promising career.

As bizarre as it sounds, the strange abnormality Sasser was experiencing wasn’t unheard of. It’s widely known in professional sports as “the yips,” a truly odd and still unexplained phenomenon that suddenly and mysteriously robs athletes of their ability to do routine tasks in their sport. Golfers begin missing ridiculously easy putts. Basketball players consistently find free throws impossible to make. Second basemen suddenly lose the ability to make competent throws to first. From darts to tennis, any unexplained inability to throw properly or continuing lack of accuracy is called “the yips.” (Well, dart players like to refer to it as “dartitis.” Yes. Really.)

Some recover. Others, however, don’t. In the media the unusual ailment is often known as Steve Blass Disease, named for an All-Star Pittsburgh Pirates hurler who, coming off a stellar 19-win season with an ERA under two-and-a-half, found himself out of baseball within two years, his career utterly destroyed by a sudden and inexplicable loss of control that drove his ERA over nine and left him with almost as many walks as innings pitched. He wasn’t hurt. He just didn’t seem to know how to throw a ball accurately anymore.

Doctors sometimes refer to the quirk as focal dystonia and some have said it could have a neurological component. Many, however, believe the problem is psychological, crediting shattered confidence or an unusual type of performance anxiety of the same sort that causes people to “choke” at a key moment in a game. Others see parallels to stuttering. Sasser blamed childhood trauma. Some believe it could be a neurological issue that’s worsened by stress.

Since no one really knows what causes the problem, no one really knows how to fix it either. Golfers have sometimes had success by switching putting hands or closing their eyes when tapping the ball. Psychologists have tried showing videotapes to ballplayers of their own accurate throws over the years. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel switched from the mound to the outfield. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, careers go the way of Steve Blass.

Whatever the cause, with millions of dollars and tons of athletic pride on the line, afflicted players often want answers. So far, there isn’t a consistent one.