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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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
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