By Emily Yoffe
— 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.
The study of illusions gives us a glimpse at the trickery our brain uses to create, below our conscious awareness, our continuous sense of the world. Our brain is a kind of detective for our conscious mind.
But it's the specific nature of the disappearance of Flight 370 that pings some of our most basic cognitive drives. In their book "The Scientist in the Crib," Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl write, "Babies become interested in, almost obsessed with, hiding-and-finding games when they are about a year old. There is the timeless appeal of peekaboo. … Babies also spontaneously undertake solo investigations of the mysterious Case of the Disappearing Object."
So, from our earliest days, we focus our attention on objects that are hidden, and then revealed. This consuming play, they write, "contributes to babies' ability to solve the big, deep problems of disappearance, causality, and categorization." No wonder we're watching CNN's nonstop coverage of a disappearing object.
We may be especially sensitive to seeing what's hidden because for our ancestors discovering food and evading threat were crucial to survival. Ramachandran writes that our visual system "evolved to detect predators behind foliage." Discovering hidden things is so central to our evolutionary survival that when we do so, "we get an internal 'Aha!' sensation." This "zap of pleasure" comes about, he explains, because our visual centers are wired to our limbic reward system. Without the reward, he says, we'd give up too easily on difficult problems. This makes it easier to understand why all over the world people have an irresistible urge to scour satellite images of vast oceans, seeking the kick of being the one to point and say, "There it is!"
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.
Chabris and Simons also write that we love to order things not because we crave chronology but because we crave causation. This imperative can serve us well. As they point out, if you see your brother eat a fruit with dark spots and he later vomits, you will likely avoid a similar-looking fruit. If the cause was the spots, you've made a good conclusion, but if the illness was due to a virus, you've made an erroneous one. In the Flight 370 mystery, we've seen over and over this desire to alight on a single piece of data and make a sweeping conclusion. This is why Slate's Will Dobson debunked the brief frenzy over the idea that there was a connection between the disappearance of Flight 370 and the fact that the day before the flight, the captain of the plane, who supported an opponent of the Malaysian ruling party, attended that man's trial.
Our brains are also future-prediction machines. David Eagleman writes in "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," that in order for us to catch a ball, for example, we need a brain trained to anticipate how a round, thrown object behaves. After sufficient practice catching balls, our brain understands the laws of physics enough for us to put out a hand where the ball will be — even though our eye and hand lag behind where the ball actually is. To be efficient, our models of how the world works must function below our consciousness. Eagleman writes that it's when sensory input violates our expectations that our conscious brain tries to solve the discrepancy or attend to the novel data. The novelty of a Boeing 777 simply disappearing is hard to overstate; no wonder our collective brain circuits devoted to noticing the unusual are fully focused.
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.
Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.