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March 24, 2014

Why our brains just cannot let this mystery go

(Continued)

Another cognitive drive engaged in the fascination with Flight 370 is our need to tell stories. "Fabrication of stories is one of the key businesses in which our brains engage," Eagleman writes. "The brain's storytelling powers kick into gear only when things are conflicting or difficult to understand." This New York Times profile of Michael Gazzaniga, one of the founders of cognitive neuroscience, explains his pathbreaking experiments on split-brain patients — people who'd had the band of neural tissue connecting the two halves of the brain severed for medical reasons. The people seemed perfectly normal, but Gazzaniga and his colleagues discovered that the left side of the brain was the linguist and interpreter of events, the right side visual but silent. So when pictures were flashed to the right side of the brain only, patients, having to rely on the chatty left side to explain what had been seen, would tell fanciful tales. Gazzaniga showed that our brain prefers a nonsensical explanation of events to none at all. This, perhaps, explains Don Lemon's infamous exploration on CNN of the supernatural theories for the plane's disappearance that some viewers were proposing.

Ramachandran writes that before the advent of modern imaging technology, with no way to peer into the brain, it was likened to a "black box." Technology has not solved the endlessly intriguing mystery of what exactly goes on inside our skulls. But let's hope our hard-wired need to unlock secrets will allow us to answer the questions of where the black box from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is, and what happened to the 239 people aboard.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.

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