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What If? 19 Alternate Histories Imagining a Very Different World

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Alternate history, long popular with fiction writers, has also been explored by historians and journalists. Here are some of their intriguing conclusions.

1. What if the South won the Civil War?

Effect: America becomes one nation again… in 1960.

Explanation: In a 1960 article published in Look magazine, author and Civil War buff MacKinlay Kantor envisioned a history in which the Confederate forces won the Civil War in 1863, forcing the despised President Lincoln into exile. The Southern forces annex Washington, DC — renaming it the District of Dixie. The USA (or what’s left of it) moves its capital to Columbus, Ohio — now called  Columbia — but can no longer afford to buy Alaska from the Russians. Texas, unhappy with the new arrangement, declares its independence in 1878. Under international pressure, the Southern states gradually abolish slavery. After fighting together in two world wars, the three nations are reunified in 1960 – a century after South Carolina’s secession had led to the Civil War in the first place.

2. What if Charles Lindbergh were elected President in 1940?

Effect: America joins the Nazis.

Explanation: Philip Roth’s bestselling novel, The Plot Against America (2002), gives us an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh, trans-Atlantic pilot and all-American hero, becomes the Republican presidential candidate in 1940, defeating the incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. President Lindbergh, a white supremacist and anti-Semite, declares martial law, throws his opponents in prison, and allies with Nazi Germany in World War II. Lindbergh is remembered as a national villain – in Roth’s opinion, the reputation he deserves.

3. What if Hitler successfully invaded Russia?

Effect: The Fuhrer is revered in history as a great leader.

Explanation: In Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland (the basis for a 1994 TV movie), Nazi Germany successfully invades Russia in 1942. Learning that Britain has broken the Enigma code, however, the Nazis play it safe and make peace with the west. Through the magic of propaganda, Hitler is revered 20 years later as a beloved leader. It’s an alternate history, of course, but Harris was drawing a parallel with real history: this was Stalin’s Russia with the names changed.

4. What if James Dean had survived his car crash?

Effect: Robert Kennedy survives his assassination attempt.

Explanation: Jack Dann’s 2004 novel The Rebel portrays a history in which film star James Dean survives his fatal car crash in 1955. “I just changed that one thing,” said Dann, who copiously researched his book, making it “as factual as I could… By exploring Dean as he matures, I'm able to cast light on the Dean that we know.” If Dean had survived, Dann suggested, he would have inspired one of his fans, Elvis Presley, to leave rock ’n’ roll and become a serious actor (which was always his ambition). Dean would later become the Democratic Governor of California, consigning his opponent Ronald Reagan to the dustbin of history. In the 1968 presidential election, he would be Robert Kennedy’s running mate, eventually saving him from the assassin’s bullet.

5. What if President Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt?

Effect: Republicans win every election for the next 30 years.

Explanation: The 1963 Kennedy assassination is a popular event of alternate history, inspiring novels, stage plays and short story collections. In an essay in the book What Ifs? of American History (2003), Robert Dallek, a Kennedy biographer, suggested that Kennedy would have successfully pulled out of Vietnam, and that he would be popular enough at the end of his second term to be succeeded by his brother, the Attorney-General Robert Kennedy. Result: no Watergate, more national optimism, and less voter cynicism.

Other writers have been less kind, envisioning that JFK would provoke violent anti-war marches, accidentally start World War III, or continue his affair with Marilyn Monroe (who also survives her early death) for another 30 years.

One of the more unusual theories was written in 1993, on the thirtieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s death. London Daily Express journalist Peter Hitchens wrote a fictitious obituary, in which Kennedy survives, and goes on to become one of America’s most unpopular presidents before finally dying at age 75, mourned by almost nobody. His presidency, the article speculated, would be so disastrous that Democrats wouldn’t occupy the White House for at least another 25 years. Even Bush’s vice-president, Dan Quayle, would be propelled to the presidency after winning a debate against Bill Clinton.

Hitchens didn’t explain how Nixon would avoid the Watergate scandal, or where Quayle would obtain his debating skills. Like everything else in this list, it’s all speculation.

6. What if Christianity missed the West?

Effect: The Enlightenment starts early – and lasts a thousand years.

Explanation: French philosopher Charles Renouvier’s book Uchronie (1876) suggested a history in which Christianity didn’t come to the west through the Roman Empire, due to a small change of events after the reign of Marcus Aurelius. In this history, while the word of Christ still spreads throughout the east, Europe enjoys an extra millennium of classical culture. When Christianity finally goes West, it is absorbed harmlessly into the multi-religious society. Naturally, this view of history was colored by Renouvier’s own worldview: while not strictly an atheist, he was no fan of organized religion.

7. What if The Beatles had broken up in 1966?

Effect: Ronald Reagan is assassinated in 1985 (obviously).

Explanation: Edward Morris’s story "Imagine" (published in the magazine Interzone in 2005) is written as an article by the legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs, which reminisces about Beatlemania – and the Beatles being banned in California after John Lennon controversially states that they are “more popular than Jesus." This leads the Fab Four to disband. Almost 20 years later, Lennon, now an embittered has-been, assassinates Reagan, whose actions – as the conservative Governor of California – had played their part in the break-up.

In this history, while Reagan died 19 years early, other people are granted extended lives. Lennon’s obscurity, of course, ensures that he is not killed by a fan in 1980. Bangs also survives the fate he suffered in reality, where he died of an accidental overdose in 1982, aged 33.

8. What if the Romans won the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest?

Effect: No one would speak English.

Explanation: In What If? (1999), edited by Robert Cowley, historians pondered what would happen if historical events had turned out differently. Many of these were popular questions — What if the Americans lost the Revolutionary War? What if the D-Day invasion had failed in 1944? But an essay by the late Lewis H. Lapham, then editor of Harper’s Magazine, recalled a little-known confrontation in 9 AD between the Roman legions and the Germanic tribes at the Teutoburg Forest. The tribes ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions in this campaign, and the Romans would never again attempt to conquer Germania beyond the Rhine.

Lapham suggested that, if the Romans had won, world history would have been remarkably different, with a “Roman empire preserved from ruin, Christ dying… on an unremembered cross, the nonappearance of the English language, neither the need nor the occasion for a Protestant Reformation… and Kaiser Wilhelm seized by an infatuation with stamps… instead of a passion for cavalry boots.”

9. What if the Protestant Reformation never happened?

Effect: Christianity would continue to rule the world. Science, not so much.

Explanation: Renowned novelist Kingsley Amis entered alternate-history territory in 1976 with his award-winning novel The Alteration. In his imagined history, Henry VIII’s short-lived older brother, Arthur, has a son just before his death. When Henry tries to usurp his nephew’s throne, he is stopped in a papal war. Hence, the Church of England is never founded, the Spanish Armada is never defeated (as Elizabeth I was never born), and Martin Luther reconciles with the Catholic Church, eventually becoming Pope. Naturally, this turns Europe into a vastly different place. By 1976, it is ruled by the Vatican, in the middle of a long-running Christian/Muslim cold war, and technologically regressed, as electricity is banned and scientists are frowned upon.

10. What if Napoleon had kept going?

Effect: Revolution in South America.

Explanation: Probably the first book-length alternate history, Napoleon and the Conquest of the World: 1812-1823 (published in 1836) imagined that Napoleon, rather than freezing in Moscow in 1812, sought out and destroyed the Russian army. One chapter mentions a fantasy novel in which the Emperor suffered a major defeat in the Belgian town of Waterloo. (The idea of a fictitious book, telling the “real” history, was also used by Kingsley Amis in The Alteration.)

But what if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo in 1815? This question was asked in 1907, in an essay contest held by London's Westminster Gazette. The winning essay, by G. M. Trevelyan, suggested that Napoleon would lose interest in expanding his empire, partly because his health was suffering, and partly because the mood in Paris was for peace. England, however, would suffer economically, with many people starving. The poet Lord Byron would lead a popular uprising against the government, which would be suppressed. Byron's execution, of course, would only inspire revolution. Meanwhile, a war of independence would stir in South America. With Napoleon ailing, the French government would nearly cease functioning, attacked from all sides. (The essay ended there – on a cliffhanger.)

11. What if the South had won the US Civil War?

Effect: The Union would be over… forever.

Explanation: The previous list of alternate histories included a historian’s view of what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Of course, the idea has also been popular in fiction. The popular Harry Turtledove, who specializes in alternate history novels, has suggested what might have happened – in 11 volumes (so far). The first novel, How Few Remain (1997), introduced a world where, years after the war, the former USA is divided into two nations: the U.S. and the Confederate States of America. Later volumes were set in the Great War, in which the CSA allies with Britain and France, and the U.S. – still bitter over the two Civil Wars – joins forces with Germany. Using advanced technology, the U.S. is on the winning side. In the South, post-war measures lead to runaway inflation, poverty, and the victory of the violent Freedom party. The newly fascist CSA then plans a Final Solution for the “surplus” black population. In the Second Great War (1941-1944), three American cities and six European cities are destroyed in nuclear attacks. At the end of the war, the U.S. side wins again, and takes control of the CSA.

Sadly, it is too late for the South to rejoin the Union. After all these years of conflict, such a move would fill Congress with some of the USA’s greatest enemies. Instead, the CSA is offered neither independence nor civil rights, but is kept under military rule.

12. What if the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a full-scale war?

Effect: The end of nuclear proliferation... except in the U.S.

Explanation: Though usually considered a branch of science fiction, alternate history stories have their own awards, the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, which have been presented to some renowned novels, including Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain, mentioned above, and in 1999, Brendan DuBois’ Resurrection Day. This envisions a world in which the U.S. military sabotages President Kennedy’s attempts to negotiate peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States invades Cuba, making the Crisis escalate into nuclear warfare. The Soviet Union is destroyed, the People’s Republic of China collapses, and a fallout cloud over Asia kills millions of others. Meanwhile, the United States loses New York, Washington DC, San Diego, Miami and other cities. However, all surviving nations renounce their possession of nuclear weapons – with the exception of the USA, now under martial law (as the military had planned all along).

13. What if Marilyn Monroe survived?

Effect: She would win an Oscar – and be brainwashed.

Explanation: Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, at age 36, has been pondered by a few writers. In his novel Idlewild (1995), journalist Mark Lawson devised a world where Monroe survived her “suicide attempts,” President Kennedy survived his assassination attempt, and they continued their notorious (if historically unproven) affair for another 30 years. Playwright Douglas Mendin, in a 1992 story for Entertainment Weekly, imagined that Monroe would survive, dedicate herself to serious acting, and win an Oscar in 1965, with no make-up and her hair dyed brown. She would then record a hit song with Frank Sinatra, make bad films, and give up acting in 1980 to look after her drug-addicted twin sons.

Then there was the American supermarket tabloid The Sun. In a 1990 story, they “revealed” that Monroe actually was still alive. According to The Sun, after threatening to reveal an affair with Robert Kennedy, she was drugged, brainwashed and taken to Australia, where she lives the "simple life of a sheep rancher's wife."

14. What if Shakespeare was a renowned historian?

Effect: Due to advanced technology, the Industrial Revolution happens 200 years early.

Explanation: Shakespeare has impressed scholars not only with his literary brilliance, but also with the historical detail of his plays. He did get a few things wrong, however—such as having a clock strike in Julius Caesar, 1500 years before such clocks were invented. The acclaimed 1974 novel A Midsummer Tempest, by popular science fiction and fantasy author Poul Andersen, was set in a world where Shakespeare’s plays are utterly accurate, and the Bard is renowned not as a creative genius, but as a great chronicler of history. Hence, fairies and other magical beings exist on this world, and the clockwork technology of Ancient Rome advanced to the stage where, in the age of Cromwell, steam trains are already running through England.

15. What if Woodrow Wilson had never been US president?

Effect: World War II would have been avoided.

Explanation: In Gore Vidal’s 1995 novel, The Smithsonian Institution, the great political scribe made one of his rare entries into science fiction. In the book, a teenage math genius is mysteriously summoned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1939, where he glimpses the upcoming World War II. Determined to prevent it, he goes back in history to seek its origins. At one stage, he concludes that the fault lay in President Woodrow Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations. Well-meaning as the organization was, Vidal blames it for causing Germany’s struggles in the 1920s, paving the way for the rise of Hitler.

16. What if Frank Sinatra was never born?

Effect: Nuclear devastation.

Explanation: In "Road to the Multiverse," a 2009 episode of Family Guy, Stewie and Brian find themselves hopping between universes. They find themselves in a Disney universe, where everything is sweet and wholesome (as long as you’re not Jewish); a universe inhabited only by a guy in the distance who gives out compliments; a universe where Christianity never existed, meaning that the Dark Ages didn’t happen; and a universe in which the positions of dogs and people are reversed. One of the most intriguing was a universe where Sinatra was never born, and is therefore unable to use his influence to get President Kennedy elected in 1960. Instead, Nixon was elected, and “totally botched the Cuban Missile Crisis, causing World War III.” This caused devastation all around them. Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t shoot Kennedy, but shot Mayor McCheese instead. (That bit was never explained.) 

17. What if Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933?

Effect: Colonization of the moon, Venus, and Mars by 1962.

Explanation: Any reality envisioned by Philip K. Dick was bound to be fascinating. His 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, which established him as a top science fiction writer, is set in a world where the Axis powers win World War II in 1947 and divide most of the world between them. This happens because, in this world, Giuseppe Zangara’s attempted assassination of President-elect Roosevelt is successful. Under the government of John Nance Garner (who would have been Roosevelt’s VP), and later the Republican candidate John W. Bricker, the U.S. doesn’t prevail against the Great Depression, and maintains an isolationist policy in World War II, leading to a weak and ineffectual military. In the America of 1962, slavery is legal once again, and the few surviving Jews hide out under assumed names. However, the Nazis have the hydrogen bomb, which also gives them the technology to fuel super-fast air travel and colonize space. This book, with its historical commentary, made many critics take sci-fi far more seriously, showing that it was more than just alien invasions and spaceships. Unlike many of Dick's later works, it has yet to be turned in to a movie, though a SyFy TV series is currently in planning stages, produced by Sir Ridley Scott.

18. What if Germany had invaded Britain by sea?

Effect: World War II might have ended earlier—but Hitler would still have lost.

Explanation: After capturing France, Nazi Germany planned to invade Britain with Operation Sea Lion, in an air and naval attack across the English Channel. The plan was shelved in 1940, but some 30 years later, the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst started a war-games module, set in a world where Sea Lion had happened. (Military academies, in their war-games, often speculate about how different strategies might have changed history.) According to the module, the Germans would not have been able to withstand the might of the British Home Guard and the RAF—and as the Royal Navy had superiority in the English Channel, they would not have been able to escape. It would have severely weakened the German army, and hastened the end of the war.

19. What if Martin Scorsese had directed Pretty Woman?

Effect: One of America’s favorite rom-coms of the 1990s would have been a gritty tragedy.

Explanation: The British movie magazine Empire joined in the counterfactuals game in 2003 by suggesting some possible stories from recent Hollywood history. Somehow, we’re not convinced that they took the job seriously, as they pondered worlds where The Godfather had flopped (forcing Francis Ford Coppola’s return to directing porn movies and Al Pacino’s return to his job as a furniture removalist), Sean Connery was gay (so that, rather than James Bond, he wins stardom in camp British comedies), and, most cruelly, Keanu Reeves was born ugly (“He would have starved to death at a very young age”), among other twisted scenarios. Perhaps the most intriguing was the reality in which Martin Scorsese, rather than Garry Marshall, directed Pretty Woman (1990), the rom-com that turned Julia Roberts into a star. As imagined by Empire scribe Richard Luck, Scorsese would retitle the film The Happy Hooker, and it would become a hard-hitting study of life on the streets. It would end not with the prostitute (Roberts) and her wealthy client (Richard Gere) living happily ever after, but with her dying of a heroin overdose while he drives into the sunset, cackling maniacally.

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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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