March 28, 2019

(San Francisco CA) – With the prankster’s holiday coming up on April 1st, it seemed a good time to ask one of the world’s top brain scientists what is happening in the brain when we are fooled. For his fourth in a series of videos about “Your Brain…” from Posit Science (maker of the BrainHQ brain exercise app), Dr. Michael Merzenich turns to April Fools: Your Brain When Fooled.

Dr. Merzenich is a world-renowned neuroscientist. Thirty years ago, he discovered the brain remains plastic – capable of chemical, structural, and functional change based on sensory and other inputs – throughout life. His simple explanations of how the brain works have become a staple of programming on public television.

“I actually enjoy hearing about or even falling for a good prank, so April Fools’ is one of my favorite days of the year,” Dr. Merzenich notes at the beginning of the video. “It underscores how important surprises are to our brains. Of course, one hopes the surprise will be… a delightful one.”

The brain is continuously sampling information and making predictions. That’s part of human survival skills. The brain is actually pretty good at connecting the dots and jumping to conclusions. It needs to be. Humans are continuously making quick decisions.

“But, sometimes, your brain is a little too quick,” Dr. Merzenich says, “and then, your judgment may get overthrown by surprise.”

The brain releases chemicals in response to surprise – for example, norepinephrine and noradrenaline, in response to unexpectedness and novelty. If it’s a really good prank, the brain also releases dopamine, which makes people feel delighted and rewarded. That’s the chemistry behind why people love a good surprise.

Dr. Merzenich says that chemical mix helps explain why this peculiar holiday – neither particularly religious nor historic – is celebrated all over the world. In France, there’s a tradition of taping a paper fish onto someone’s back, and the holiday is called “Poisson d’Avril” – literally, “April Fish!” In Scotland, they so love a prank, it is a two-day holiday on April 1st and 2nd. While in England and Germany, they are much more efficient, and all pranks must be completed by noon. Historians trace this foolish day at least as far back as the 6th Century BC in Persia.

“It’s actually pretty easy to fool another person,” Dr. Merzenich observes. “It’s one of our great weaknesses. We all make mistakes, all the time. ”

He discusses the strategies we employ to persuade others that what is false is true and elucidates the tricks used by magicians – true masters of deception – to make you fail to see what’s really happening.

Dr. Merzenich predicts that due to neuroscience advances in reducing human error rates, we will soon only make mistakes on April Fools’ Day – and then, just to preserve the tradition. And, if you believe that… April Fools!