• Prashant Khurana

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: The Science Behind What You Thought Was Deja Vu

Ever learnt something new that you thought was obscure and found that thing popping up in your life again and again, say, a new word from a Shashi Tharoor tweet?

You went to buy a new computer. Not having any interest in computers, you decided you should research about them a little. You went on the internet, learnt about specs, spoke to the sales person at the store and grasped the purpose of cores in a processor. Next thing you know, your dad is talking to you about cores in his computer, the ad on the television is referring to them, and your friend starts to discuss his phone’s poor performance and complains that its processor doesn’t have enough cores. You feel weird about this sudden increase in references to ‘cores’ right after you learnt about the purpose they serve.

We all have, and probably thought of it as Déjà vu. But it is not that- psychologists call this the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Déjà vu, technically, is the sense of feeling that some event has happened earlier and you are revisiting the same. Baader-Meinhof is used to express a 'frequency illusion' or a 'recency illusion' i.e. the recurrent and frequent occurrence of something you came to understand very recently.

"Once it has acquired new information, that it deems to be relatively obscure, it tends to look pay more attention to wherever it is available, than it did in the past."

Baader-Meinhof (pronounced badder mainhoff) is the result of the selective attention in the subconscious of our brain. It is a neurological manifestation of our brain’s evolutionarily developed tendency to focus on what it deems important among the mundane tasks of our lives.

Once it has acquired new information, that it deems to be relatively obscure, it tends to look pay more attention to wherever it is available, than it did in the past. This is because it fits a template within the brain in which it previously did not. Weird, yes. But what is happening isn’t that you are coming across that information more frequently. It is just that your brain had earlier shut itself off to it because its ‘selective attention’ was focused on something (or, for the sake of Valentine’s week, someone) else. This also had to do with the fact that in you had no interest in this new piece of information, such as the ‘cores’ in our above computer example, so the brain deemed it irrelevant.

However, having acquired an understanding about it, the information no longer remains irrelevant and the brain begins to notice it on billboards, in books, on TV and at every perceptible location. The phenomenon was initially called ‘frequency illusion’, a term coined by Stanford Linguist Arnold Zwicky who first provided the ‘selective attention’ hypothesis as an explanation in 2006. However, the term ‘Baader-Meinhof’ stuck to the phenomenon as a sobriquet in 1994, even before it had an explanation, because someone read about an ultra-left wing German terrorist group with the same name and then experienced the illusion. The German group got the name from the surnames of its two leaders- Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Within 24 hours, this individual, a commentator at the St. Paul’s Pioneer Press, wrote about it and the name stuck thereafter. There is even a Facebook page devoted to the phenomenon.

Well, the next time you undergo this weird experience, you probably know what it is. And perhaps, that experience is going to happen soon enough now that you have read this article.

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