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March 24, 2014

Why our brains just cannot let this mystery go

In the age of constant surveillance, it's not supposed to be possible for an airliner with 239 people on board to simply vanish. The mystery of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has gripped the world. CNN has seen its ratings soar by broadcasting nonstop coverage of the missing airplane. Millions of people are scouring satellite images of the oceans looking for pieces of debris. There is endless water cooler conversation about the clues and speculation about the cause of the disappearance. Reuters columnist Jack Shafer speaks for many when he writes, "[T]story has wedged its way into my consciousness and will persist until somebody locates the Boeing 777 and solves the mystery."

Why should the story of Flight 370 grip us so? This mystery seems almost designed to arouse some fundamental parts of our brain. One of our most essential tasks is to solve the enigma of the outside world, and this starts with our basic sensory perceptions. Our conscious minds experience reality as a seamlessly spooling movie in HD and surround sound. But our brain is fooling us. It turns out the very act of perception "is more like puzzle solving than most people realize," writes neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran in "The Tell-Tale Brain." "When you look at a simple visual scene, your brain is constantly resolving ambiguities, testing hypotheses, searching for patterns, comparing current information with memories and expectations."

Since our brain is in the business of solving the puzzle of reality, no wonder we are so gripped when reality presents us with such a maddening puzzle. Even if the debris in the Indian Ocean is proven to be from the missing plane, we still haven't solved the mystery of what happened. The few clues leave us endlessly speculating about what happened to the plane; in the same way, our brains must use the necessarily limited data our senses perceive and apply deductive skills to constantly come up with a functionally plausible version of reality.

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