Why memories can feel like movies

When Adele sings "It felt like a movie...", there's a scientific reason that it did. Your brain is technically unconscious about 240 times a minute.

You're reading this, but you're also not. About four times a second, your brain breaks focus to "check in" on your surroundings—and then refocuses back on the task at hand. According to a fascinating study just published in Neuron, you never really notice that you're "zooming out" about 240 times a minute for milliseconds at a time. 

You're basically creating a narrative based on the huge amount of stimuli and data around you at any given time, zooming in and out of consciousness. The more stimuli, the more vivid the narrative and therefore the memory: the constant hustle and jam-packed-ness of New York City is a prime reason why artists have found New York City such an inspiration. Simply put: there's a lot more going on, so your memories are a lot more vivid than they would be in, say, Bixby, Oklahoma

So what's causing this constant slipping in-and-out of consciousness? Your frontoparietal network. This brain system is a hub for gathering information and registering all the data intake to try to make sense out of it. Think of it as the editor-in-chief trying to make a story from 100 different reporters. Now multiply that number times several thousand times a minute, and you can get a sense of the intense amount of work this takes. 

Think of a memory: it plays like a movie in your head, doesn't it? What you're most likely doing, says the study, is remembering a static image and building around it. This experience, to us, feels completely normal as we are very used to our brain filling in the gaps between what it does and doesn't know: the more new information, the better, which is why you can remember a childhood birthday party 20-plus years in the past a lot more vividly than you do, say, driving down the freeway two days ago. The freeway doesn't provide a lot of stimuli (save for the driving, which you're used to), but the birthday party did. 

The frontoparietal network is highlighted here in yellow: 

Even when you think you're focused on something, the brain doesn't turn this function off and keeps firing away, four times a second, or 240 times a minute. This isn't a bug but a feature: it was particularly useful to our ancestors, as they lived in a world of constant fear and danger around every corner. These days, the majority of the western world is pampered beyond belief so that survival instinct just renders us as incredibly distracted. So, even as you're reading this sentence, your mind is subliminally worrying about whether or not a bear is going to eat you, or something else will kill you. Think that's a silly sentiment? Consider the fact that humans have been around for 200,000 years and we've only been not worried about being eaten by lions, tigers, and bears for maybe 6,000 years.

So, technically, you're unconscious 240 times a minute. But it's important to read the word unconscious not in the context of "totally out of it"—you're simply not registering the immediate present. 

When we forget this instinct, it's called tunnel vision, and it's exactly why we can lose ourselves in a good story or a good movie (it might seem obvious when you think about how a movie theater is set up: a very dark room with one large focal point). It's also why during special moments you feel as if you can feel everything: like, say, a birthday party, a wedding, etc. The feeling of happiness, on a biological level, is produced by a chemical in your brain called cortisol. And when cortisol floods your frontoparietal network it's sort of like putting gasoline on a BBQ; you're likely to remember a lot more about the snapshot your brain is taking. 

So when Adele sings "It felt like a movie...", there's a scientific reason that it did. The downside of this is that, technically, four times a second your brain is de-focusing to make sure you're not in any danger. It might feel like a movie, but you're still worried about bears. 

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.