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Mind Hacks
By Tom Stafford, Matt Webb
November 2004
More Info

How do these hacks stand up? Comment on a hack from the book by choosing the associated "Discuss" link below. You can also view the code from any of the hacks by clicking on the "Listing" or "Code" links. A number of hacks have been selected to be featured online in their entirety; you may view those hacks by clicking on the hack titles that are linked.

Jump to: Inside the Brain  | Seeing  | Attention  | Hearing and Language  | Integrating  | Moving  | Reasoning  | Togetherness  | Remembering  | Other People

Inside the Brain

HACK
#1

Find Out How the Brain Works Without Looking Inside
How do you tell what's inside a black box without looking in it? This is the challenge the mind presents to cognitive psychology
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#2

Electroencephalogram: Getting the Big Picture with EEGs
EEGs give you an overall picture of the timing of brain activity but without any fine detail
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#3

Positron Emission Tomography: Measuring Activity Indirectly with PET
PET is a radioactivity-based technique to build a detailed 3D model of the brain and its activity
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#4

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging: The State of the Art
fMRI produces high-resolution animations of the brain in action
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#5

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: Turn On and Off Bits of the Brain
Stimulate or suppress specific regions of the brain, then sit back and see what happens
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#6

Neuropsychology, the 10% Myth, and Why You Use All of Your Brain
Neuropsychology is the study of what different parts of the brain do by studying people who no longer have those parts. As well as being the oldest technique of cognitive neuroscience, it refutes the oft-repeated myth that we only use 10% of our brains
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#7

Get Acquainted with the Central Nervous System
Take a brief tour around the spinal cord and brain. What's where, and what does what?
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#8

Tour the Cortex and the Four Lobes
The forebrain, the classic image of the brain we know from pictures, is the part of the brain that defines human uniqueness. It consists of four lobes and a thin layer on the surface called the cortex
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#9

The Neuron
There's a veritable electrical storm going on inside your head: 100 billion brain cells firing electrical signals at one another are responsible for your every thought and action
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#10

Detect the Effect of Cognitive Function on Cerebral Blood Flow
When you think really hard, your heart rate noticeably increases
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#11

Why People Don't Work Like Elevator Buttons
More intense signals cause faster reaction times, but there are diminishing returns: as a stimulus grows in intensity, eventually the reaction speed can't get any better. The formula that relates intensity and reaction speed is Pieron's Law
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#12

Build Your Own Sensory Homunculus
All abilities are skills; practice something and your brain will devote more resources to it
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Seeing

HACK
#13

Understand Visual Processing
The visual system is a complex network of modules and pathways, all specializing in different tasks to contribute to our eventual impression of the world
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#14

See the Limits of Your Vision
The high-resolution portion of your vision is only the size of your thumbnail at arm's length. The rest of your visual input is low res and mostly colorless, although you seldom realize it
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#15

To See, Act
Think of perception as a behavior, as something active, rather than as something passive. Perception exists to guide action, and being able to act is key to the construction of the high-resolution illusion of the world we experience
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#16

Map Your Blind Spot
Find out how big your visual blind spot is and how your brain fills the hole so you don't notice it
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#17

Glimpse the Gaps in Your Vision
Our eyes constantly dart around in extremely quick movements called saccades. During each movement, vision cuts out
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#18

When Time Stands Still
Our sense of time lends a seamless coherence to our conscious experience of the world. We are able to effortlessly distinguish between the past, present, and future. Yet, subtle illusions show that our mental clock can make mistakes
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#19

Release Eye Fixations for Faster Reactions
It takes longer to shift your attention to a new object if the old object is still there
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#20

Fool Yourself into Seeing 3D
How do you figure out the three-dimensional shape of objects, just by looking? At first glance, it's using shadows
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#21

Objects Move, Lighting Shouldn't
Moving shadows make us see moving objects rather than assume moving light sources
[Discuss (1) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#22

Depth Matters
Our perception of a 3D world draws on multiple depth cues as diverse as atmospheric haze and preconceptions of object size. We use all together in vision and individually in visual design and real life
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#23

See How Brightness Differs from Luminance: The Checker Shadow Illusion
A powerful illusion of brightness shows how our brain takes scene structure and implied lighting into account when calculating the shade of things
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#24

Create Illusionary Depth with Sunglasses
We can use a little-known illusion called the Pulfrich Effect to hack the brain's computation of motion, depth, and brightness—all it takes is a pair of shades and a pendulum.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#25

See Movement When All Is Still
Aftereffect illusions are caused by how cells represent motion in the brain
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#26

Get Adjusted
We get used to things because our brain finds consistency boring and adjusts to filter it out
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#27

Show Motion Without Anything Moving
Find out why static pictures can make up a moving image on your TV screen
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#28

Motion Extrapolation: The "Flash-Lag Effect"
If there's a flash of light on a moving object, the flash appears to hang a little behind
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#29

Turn Gliding Blocks into Stepping Feet
Motion detection uses contrast information first, not color
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#30

Understand the Rotating Snakes Illusion
Shading in pictures combined with the continuous random jiggling our eyes make can generate compelling movement illusions
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#31

Minimize Imaginary Distances
If you imagine an inner space, the movements you make in it take up time according to how large they are. Reducing the imaginary distances involved makes manipulating mental objects easier and quicker
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#32

Explore Your Defense Hardware
We have special routines that detect things that loom and make us flinch in response
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#33

Neural Noise Isnt a Bug; Its a Feature
Neural signals are innately noisy, which might just be a good thing
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Attention

HACK
#34

Detail and the Limits of Attention
Focusing on detail is limited by both the construction of the eye and the attention systems of the brain
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#35

Count Faster with Subitizing
You don't need counting if a group is small enough; subitizing will do the job, and it's almost instant
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#36

Feel the Presence and Loss of Attention
Following seemingly identical objects around with your eyes isn't an easy job. Concentrating, it's possible, and the brain can even track objects when they momentarily pass behind things and disappear, but only in certain circumstances
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#37

Grab Attention
Sudden movement or light can grab your attention, thanks to a second region for visual processing
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#38

Don't Look Back!
Your visual attention contains a basic function that puts the dampers on second glances
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#39

Avoid Holes in Attention
Our ability to notice things suffers in the half-second after we've just spotted something else
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#40

Blind to Change
We don't memorize every detail of a visual scene. Instead, we use the world as its own best representation—continually revisiting any bits we want to think about. This saves the brain time and resources, but can make us blind to changes
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#41

Make Things Invisible Simply by Concentrating (on Something Else)
What you pay attention to determines what you see, so much so that you can miss things that are immensely obvious to others—like dancing gorillas, for instance
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#42

The Brain Punishes Features that Cry Wolf
The act of focusing on just one object goes hand in hand with actively suppressing everything you have to ignore. This suppression persists across time, in a phenomenon called negative priming
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#43

Improve Visual Attention Through Video Games
Some of the constraints on how fast we can task-switch or observe simultaneously aren't fixed. They can be trained by playing first-person action video games
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Hearing and Language

HACK
#44

Detect Timing with Your Ears
Audition is a specialized sense for gathering information from the fourth dimension
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#45

Detect Sound Direction
Our ears let us know approximately which direction sounds are coming from. Some sounds, like echoes, are not always informative, and there is a mechanism for filtering them out
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#46

Discover Pitch
Why we perceive pitch at all is a story in itself. Pitch exists for sounds because our brains calculate it, and to do that, they must have a reason
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#47

Keep Your Balance
The ear isn't just for hearing; it helps you keep your balance
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#48

Detect Sounds on the Margins of Certainty
Can you sort the signal from the noise? Patterns and regularity are often deeply hidden, but we're surprisingly adept at finding them
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#49

Speech Is Broadband Input to Your Head
Once your brain has decided to classify a sound as speech, it brings online a raft of tricks to extract from it the maximum amount of information
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#50

Give Big-Sounding Words to Big Concepts
The sounds of words carry meaning too, as big words for big movements demonstrate
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#51

Stop Memory-Buffer Overrun While Reading
The length of a sentence isn't what makes it hard to understand— it's how long you have to wait for a phrase to be completed
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#52

Robust Processing Using Parallelism
Neural networks process in parallel rather than serially. This means that as processing of different aspects proceeds, previously processed aspects can be used quickly to disambiguate the processing of others
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Integrating

HACK
#53

Put Timing Information into Sound and Location Information into Light
The timing of an event will be dominated by the sound it makes, the location by where it looks as if it is happening—this is precisely why ventriloquism works
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#54

Don't Divide Attention Across Locations
Attention isn't separate for different senses. Where you place your attention in visual space affects what you hear in auditory space. Attention exists as a central, spatially allocated resource
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#55

Confuse Color Identification with Mixed Signals
When you're speaking, written words can distract you. If you're thinking nonlinguistically, they can't
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#56

Don't Go There
You're drawn to reach in the same direction as something you're reacting to, even if the direction is completely unimportant
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#57

Combine Modalities to Increase Intensity
Events that affect more than one sense feel more intense in both of them
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#58

Watch Yourself to Feel More
Looking at your skin makes it more sensitive, even if you can't see what it is you're feeling. Look through a magnifying glass and it becomes even more sensitive
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#59

Hear with Your Eyes: The McGurk Effect
Listen with your eyes closed and you'll hear one sound; listen and watch the speaker at the same time and you'll hear another
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#60

Pay Attention to Thrown Voices
Sounds from the same spatial location are harder to separate, but not if you use vision to fool your brain into "placing" one of the sounds somewhere else
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#61

Talk to Yourself
Language isn't just for talking to other people; it may play a vital role in helping your brain combine information from different modules
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Moving

HACK
#62

The Broken Escalator Phenomenon: When Autopilot Takes Over
Your conscious experience of the world and control over your body both feel instantaneous—but they're not
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#63

Keep Hold of Yourself
How do we keep the sensations on our skin up to date as we move our bodies around in space?
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#64

Mold Your Body Schema
Your body image is mutable within only a few minutes of judicious—and misleading—visual feedback
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#65

Why Can't You Tickle Yourself?
Experiments with tickling provide hints as to how the brain registers self-generated and externally generated sensations
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#66

Trick Half Your Mind
When it comes to visual processing in the brain, it's all about job delegation. We've got one pathway for consciously perceiving the world—recognizing what's what—and another for getting involved—using our bodies to interact with the world out there
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#67

Objects Ask to Be Used
When we see objects, they automatically trigger the movements we'd make to use them
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#68

Test Your Handedness
We all have a hand preference when undertaking manual tasks. But why is this so? And do you always prefer the same hand, or does it vary with what you are doing? Does the way people vary their hand preference differ between right- and left-handers?
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#69

Use Your Right Brain—and Your Left, Too
The logical left brain and intuitive right brain metaphor is popular, but the real story of the difference between the two halves of your brain is more complex and more interesting
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Reasoning

HACK
#70

Use Numbers Carefully
Our brains haven't evolved to think about numbers. Funny things happen to them as they go into our heads
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#71

Think About Frequencies Rather than Probabilities
Probability statistics are particularly hard to think about correctly. Fortunately you can make it easier by presenting the same information in a way that meshes with our evolved capacity to reason about how often things happen
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#72

Detect Cheaters
Our sense of logic is much better when applied to social situations than used in abstract scenarios
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#73

Fool Others into Feeling Better
Many of the unpleasant phenomena associated with injury and infection are in fact produced by the brain to protect the body. Medical assistance shifts the burden of protection from self to other, which allows the brain to reduce its self-imposed unpleasantness
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#74

Maintain the Status Quo
People don't like change. If you really want people to try something new, you should just coerce them into giving it a go and chuck the idea of persuading them straight off
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Togetherness

HACK
#75

Grasp the Gestalt
We group our visual perceptions together according to the gestalt grouping principles. Knowing these can help your visual information design to sit well with people's expectations
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#76

To Be Noticed, Synchronize in Time
We tend to group together things that happen at the same time or move in the same way. It's poor logic but a great hack for spotting patterns
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#77

See a Person in Moving Lights
Lights on the joints of a walking person are enough to give a vivid impression of the person, carrying information on mood, gender, and other details—but only while the person keeps moving
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#78

Make Things Come Alive
Add a few tweaks to the way a thing moves, and you can make objects seem as if they have a life of their own
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#79

Make Events Understandable as Cause and Effect
By following a couple of simple rules, you can show a clear pattern of cause and effect, and ensure your viewer is able to make the connection between separate things happening at the same time
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#80

Act Without Knowing It
How do we experience our actions as self-caused? It's not automatic; in fact, the feeling of consciousness may indeed have been added to our perception of our actions our brains had already made the decision to act
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Remembering

HACK
#81

Bring Stuff to the Front of Your Mind
Just because you're not thinking of something doesn't mean it isn't there just waiting to pop into your mind. How recently you last thought of it, and whether you've thought of anything related to it, affects how close to the surface an idea is
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#82

Subliminal Messages Are Weak and Simple
Subliminal perception sneaks underneath the level of consciousness and can influence your preferences—but only a little
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#83

Fake Familiarity
Hack memory to make people feel they've seen something before
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#84

Keep Your Sources Straight (if You Can)
When memory serves up information upon request, it seems to come packaged with its origin and sender. But these details are often produced ad hoc and may not fully match the true source
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#85

Create False Memories
Here is one way of creating memories of things that you haven't actually experienced
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#86

Change Context to Build Robust Memories
When you learn something, you tend to store context as well. Sometimes this is a good thing, but it can mean your memories don't lend themselves to being recalled in different circumstances
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#87

Boost Memory Using Context
Your memories aren't stored discretely like objects in a filing cabinet; rather, they are interleaved with other things in memory. This explains why you're good with faces but not with names, why you should go back to your hometown to better remember your school days, and maybe even why you dream, too
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#88

Think Yourself Strong
You can train your strength and skill with imagination alone, showing that there's a lot more to limb control than mere muscle size
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#89

Navigate Your Way Through Memory
A 2,500-year-old memory trick shows how our memory for events may be based on our ability to remember routes to get to places
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#90

Have an Out-of-Body Experience
Our regular experience of the world is first person, but in some situations, we see ourselves from an external perspective. These out-of-body experiences may even have a neurological basis
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#91

Enter the Twilight Zone: The Hypnagogic State
On the edge of sleep, you may enter hypnagogia, a state of freewheeling thoughts and sometimes hallucinations
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#92

Make the Caffeine Habit Taste Good
Caffeine chemically hacks the brain's reward system, boosting the value we give not only to the morning cuppa, but also to everything associated with it
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Other People

HACK
#93

Understand What Makes Faces Special
We have dedicated neural machinery for recognizing faces from just a few basic features arranged in the right configuration
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#94

Signal Emotion
Emotions are powerful on the inside but often displayed in subtle ways on the outside. Are these displays culturally dependent or universal?
[Discuss (2) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#95

Make Yourself Happy
Turn on your affective system by tweaking your face muscles—or getting an eyeful of someone else doing the same
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#96

Reminisce Hot and Cold
Find the fire that's cooking your memory systems
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#97

Look Where I'm Looking
We are innately programmed to follow other people's eye gaze to see what they are looking at. It's so deeply ingrained that even cartoon eyes can interfere with our mental processing of direction
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#98

Monkey See, Monkey Do
We mimic accents, gestures, and mannerisms without even noticing, and it seems it's the mere act of perception that triggers it
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#99

Spread a Bad Mood Around
Have you ever found yourself in a confrontational mood for no reason? It could come down to what you've been reading
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#100

You Are What You Think
Thinking about how certain stereotypes behave can make you walk slower or get a higher score in a general knowledge quiz
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]


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