Brain games

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on July 24, 2020


“Have you seen Brain Games?” Bins wants to know. We’re talking, as usual, on WhatsApp. He’s in Morning, India and I’m in Late Night, US. “Is it a movie or a programme?” I ask. “A programme on Disney Plus,” he explains. “You need to watch it so that you can tell me the interesting bits!”

He gets bored watching, he says, “because it’s like eating baby food. But you, on the other hand...” “Okay, stop!” I yell, “never mind why! Just say what you saw that was interesting.” It turns out he watched two episodes. “The first one is about how human eyes get fooled. It’s very amazing! There’s a picture of two grey panels, one light, one dark — but when the guy covers the joint between the panels, we can see that both panels are the same shade of grey!”

“I’ve seen that one,” I say, feeling superior. “Of course you have,” says Bins, sounding irritable. “But you’ve not seen all the stuff on the programme. For instance: Have you seen the one about the fake arm?” A volunteer sits with one arm hidden from her view, behind a screen. A fake arm is placed on the table in front of her, in the position that her real arm might take. The presenter strokes the hidden hand with a brush, while also stroking the fake hand. Suddenly, WHAM! He slams a hammer down onto the fake hand! And the volunteer gives a little shriek, flinching with shock. Even though she felt nothing!

“All right,” I admit. “I’ve not seen that one.” “It’s because the brain is confused by the sight of that familiar arm, just like the real one,” says Bins. “The second episode is even better,” he says. “They set up a situation in a public park. Ten volunteers agree to take part in a little experiment. They’re told to watch a man playing a common card trick. While they’re watching — ooh! A mugging! Five minutes later, they’re each asked to describe what they saw. And they can’t!”

Not just that: The genuine eye-witnesses are subtly manipulated by two members of their group who have been told to feed false details to the others. “The strange thing is,” says Bins, “even the programme audience — me, for instance — gets tricked by hearing other people swear that they saw a red cap, a white jacket. Yet the woman was wearing grey and the thief had no moustache.”

The clever point being made by the programme, says Bins, is that the justice system often depends heavily on witness statements, which can be utterly false. “Even if everything about the programme is fake, that part is fully true,” says Bins. “It sounds like a great programme,” I say, “I don’t understand why you don’t just watch it!”

“Yah,” says Bins. I can hear birds chirping as he walks outside. “But better if you watch it.” “Why?” I ask. “Then you can tell me all about it, while I look after my bulbuls,” he says.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on July 24, 2020

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