The Oddity of the Brain: the Baader-Meinhoff Phenomen


For those of you who have never heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, don’t worry, you will. Or you did just the other day and now you’re hearing about it again. Isn’t that a coincidence?

Also known as the ‘frequency illusion’, this phenomenon is characterized by the illusion that something that has recently been brought to one’s attention, like name, a word, a definition, seems to all of a sudden appear more frequently. Simply put, any time you hear someone say that they had just heard about something and now they hear about it again, that’s the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work.

We’ve all experienced it at one point or another in our lives. The phenomenon is so frequent for some people that they end up expecting it every time they are introduced to some new and odd piece of information. Baader-Meinhof is somewhat similar to synchronicity, a phenomenon in which there is a feeling of having just had two or even more events are somehow meaningfully related. For example thinking of an old friend, then bumping into them on the street the next day. Both synchronicity and Baader-Meinhof give the feeling that these events were meant to happen the way they did.

No matter how hard science tries to convince that the complexity of the world we live in is the perfect breeding ground for coincidences, observing these phenomena has taught us that this explanation is not sufficient. Our brains are hardwired to notice patterns, a very important aspect of learning, which has kept us alive for millennia. However, this trait also causes our brains to see patterns where there aren’t any to see, thus lending excessive importance to otherwise unremarkable events.

Considering the amount of notions, names, new words, and so on, the same information is bound to find its way back to us. However, we do tend to pay specific attention to new terms or interesting new words and ignore the less important information we come across every day. That kind of selection and filtering out non-interesting notions, is called selective attention.

Of course, events that are not examples of odd coincidences will never capture our attention the same way random events will because, our brains love a good pattern. Moreover, Baader-Meinhof is intensified by the ‘recency effect’, by which our perception of recent observations is magnified, increasing the changes of us being even more aware of the notion.

It’s unknown exactly how this phenomenon got its name, as Baader-Meinhof is actually the name of a historic German guerrilla group. No matter how it got named, you will certainly encounter this phenomena again in the following days.

Further reading:

List of cognitive biases
– Wikipedia

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