Have you ever read about something one day, or learned a new word, or heard about someone new, and then had that piece of information, or new word, or person’s name crop up again and again in completely different contexts not long after? Like, you’re reading a book that has a character named Starling, and then the next day, you drive by a road named Starling and you’re like, “Hey, look! How coincidental!”, and then a few more days after that, you come across a program on the Discovery Channel that’s talking about a bird called starling, and you’re like, “Okay, wow, this is freaky.”
I’m sure you’re nodding your head already. Most of us have gone through this. I even remember discussing the whole thing with a friend back in university and wondering whether there was a name for it. We didn’t look too hard for an answer back then, but it turns out a simple Google search would have given us what we were looking for: the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It works on the fairly simple idea that when you learn something new (a word, a name, a fact), your brain works like a highlighter for a while after, subconsciously emphasising that new piece of information in places it’s always been but you haven’t noticed before. They call this “selective attention”, where your brain ignores information that’s been present in front of you all along, until you actively (but unconsciously, for the most part) start looking for it after a specific incident. So ‘Starling’ has been around all the time, but you’re only just starting to notice it in several different places because your brain remembers Starling from that book you read.
Interesting, huh? To think that there’s so much information around you all the time that your brain has to actively refuse to take most of it in! Doesn’t it make you wonder how much information you’re blind to, not because you don’t have access to it, but because you simply don’t bother registering it? How much has been right in front of you without you ever noticing? How much you don’t know because you’re just not attuned to it yet?
“Pay attention!”, we’re told all the time. Are we likely to experience this phenomenon more if we pay attention to everything around us all the time? Or less, because nothing really stands out in that sea of information? Is it even worth telling people to pay attention if our brain ends up scanning everything and just focusing on what it sees fit? Who knows.
At any rate, if you read this, and then see the name Starling or hear about the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon in the next few days… well, now you know what’s happening.