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15 Strategic Reserves of Unusual Products

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We’ve all collected something at one time or another, although it’s usually more for novelty’s sake than to ameliorate large-scale humanitarian disasters or to control the market price of, say, souvenir spoons. Other than doomsday preppers, that’s usually the purview of national governments. But while many countries keep stockpiles of the obvious things, like petroleum or gold, you might be surprised to hear what others have been collecting in their federal reserves—and why.

1. THE GLOBAL STRATEGIC MAPLE SYRUP RESERVE

Non-Canadians might think of maple syrup production as a cottage industry, but it’s responsible for thousands of jobs in the Great White North—and whole lot of the nation’s revenue. The Canadian province of Quebec is responsible for 71 percent of the world’s maple syrup, and the stuff’s not cheap—a 600-pound barrel of grade-A syrup trades at $1650 USD, more than 10 times the price of crude oil. Add to this the fact that maple trees are notoriously fickle about the weather—they require both cold nights and mildly warm days to cause sap to flow, which means that a sudden change in the weather can cause disaster—and it’s a situation that could potentially cost Canada beaucoup bucks. So, since 2000, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers has been building entire warehouses of extra maple syrup near Quebec City, to brace the country for a sudden syrup dearth. The Federation also seeks to push the alleged health benefits of maple syrup to its foreign consumers, arguing on the platform that it’s better for you than white sugar.

The stockpile that was created to protect the province’s revenue was robbed in 2012, following a great syrup surplus the previous year. Thieves who weren't part of the Federation but had access to the warehouse siphoned syrup from barrels, making off with 60 percent of the stockpile—6 million pounds—which worked out to over $18 million CDN in syrup. The thieves were later arrested, but only a quarter of the syrup was recovered.

2. THE SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED TRUST

A frozen, far-flung possession of Norway with a mere 2600 residents, the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard doesn’t have a whole lot going on—but its low population density (just 0.10 of a person per square mile) and its location, inside the Arctic Circle just north of the Scandinavian peninsula, make it the perfect place to hide your stash.

Starting in 1984, the Nordic Gene Bank has been squirreling away frozen seeds inside an old coal mine, and in 2006, Norway began construction of a new facility 400 feet inside a sandstone mountain to protect against the loss of certain plant life in the event of a global catastrophe. The island's permafrost will keep the seeds frozen in the event of an electrical failure, its high elevation is expected to keep the seeds safe and dry if the polar ice caps should melt, and there's a lack of tectonic activity. After many years of duplicating seeds from the Southern African Development Community, which also keeps a vast seed collection, the NGB merged its seeds with the SADCs, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008. The vault contains approximately 865,000 different agricultural seed samples, with the capacity to hold 4.5 million.

3. THE PROTECTING ICE MEMORY PROJECT

Did you know that glaciers contain data? Scientists do, which is why, deep within a snow cave in Antarctica, a group of them are slowly building a library of ice in an effort to head off global warming before the glaciers melt completely. The Protecting Ice Memory project was launched in August 2016 by a team of glaciologists and engineers from France, Italy, Russia, and the U.S. The idea is to get as many samples from as many mountain glaciers as possible worldwide, catalogue the info found within, and ship the samples to their icy database at the bottom of the world.

The information contained within the 426-foot-long ice cores includes historical data points on gaseous concentration, pollution, and long-term temperature changes, among other things. This project has only just begun, and it sounds like it could be slow-going—the three ice cores extracted from Col du Dôme in France aren’t even in Antarctica yet, and the first one won’t be analyzed until 2019, with the other two slated for sometime in 2020.

4. THE NATIONAL RAISIN RESERVE

Most stockpiles are created to protect against a shortage of the thing that’s being stockpiled, but the National Raisin Reserve came about as a solution to the opposite problem: America just had too many raisins. During World War II, both the government and civilians bought raisins in large quantities to send to soldiers overseas; by a few years after the war's end, in 1949, the raisin market was flooded. In response, the raisin growers joined together and under the auspices of a New Deal-era Act created Marketing Order 989, supervised by the USDA, which allowed them to take a varying percentage of American raisin farmers’ produce—sometimes almost half and often without paying for them—in an effort to create a raisin shortage and artificially drive up the market price. The confiscated crops were then put into storage in California, whereupon some of them would eventually be used in school lunches, fed to livestock, or sold to other countries.

This went on until 2002, when farmer Marvin Horne decided that he actually was not going to hand over his raisins and, instead, preferred to sell all of them. The government responded by sending the raisin police (actually a local private detective firm) to surveil his farm and then sending him a bill for about $680,000. Horne sued, and the case bounced around several courts for many years, ultimately landing at the U.S. Supreme Court—twice: the first time due to a question on jurisdiction (where one justice referred to the law that created the Marketing Order as “the world’s most outdated law”) and the second time to determine if the raisin seizures violated the Fifth Amendment prohibition against taking personal property without just compensation. Ultimately, in 2015, the court ruled in favor of Horne: For seizures to continue, compensation would have to be paid. Many pundits saw this as the end of the raisin stockpile, but it may soon return—the USDA just says that “Due to a recent United States Supreme Court decision, [the Volume Control] provisions are currently suspended, being reviewed, and will be amended.”

5. THE CHINESE PORK STOCKPILE

Meanwhile, in China, they’re finding out what happens when you confiscate too much of a staple: in this case, a 200,000-metric ton stash of pork. The Chinese pork reserve is nothing new; the stockpile of frozen meat has existed for almost a decade in an effort to control the wildly fluctuating price of pork. The meat has been at the center of the country’s cuisine and culture for thousands of years. (Rou, the Mandarin word for “meat,” is the same as the word for “pork.”) The idea was cooked up in 2007, when porcine blue ear disease wiped out a large number of Chinese pigs and the price of pork soared by 87 percent, leading to civil unrest. In May 2016, the stockpile came in handy when 6.1 million pounds of frozen pork were released in response to a price surge of more than 50 percent—which was a result of the government keeping the price so low that Chinese farmers were giving up on raising pigs for such low profits, creating a dire pork shortage. Although economists doubt how effective the pork reserve is, the price of pork did fall in the ensuing months. Sounds like it’s an effective tactic, as long as you don’t go hog wild with it.

6. THE COTTON RESERVE IN INDIA

Dating back several millennia, textiles manufacturing is one of the oldest industries in India’s economy, and the country is hugely dependent on it too—garments and fabrics make up 11 percent of India’s total exports, and 60 percent of those exports are cotton-based. Which is why the state-run Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) has amassed about 2.5 million bales of cotton, which it sits on in case it needs to back up the mills in the event of a shortage.

India isn’t the only country in the world to hoard cotton—China used to do this as well, and at one point, it owned up to 40 percent of the entire world’s supply. But now that the Chinese government stopped buying cotton in 2013, due to the fiber’s high storage costs, India may one day take the all-time cotton high score.

7. FEDERAL HELIUM RESERVE

In 1925, the U.S. government began reserving helium for use in dirigibles, in hopes of catching up to the massive fleet of airships that Germany had used during World War I. But by the end of World War II, airplanes had replaced airships as the military’s de rigueur aircraft, so you’d think the helium stockpile would have been sold off.

Not so. Turns out, this helium is valuable for a bunch of perhaps-unexpected reasons. Not only is it useful since it’s a “superfluid” at temperatures very near to absolute zero, it’s ideal as a protective atmosphere for shielded arc welding. The scientific research industry also has a demand for the gas—the helium atom is one of the simplest that can be used to study atomic physics in quantum mechanics. Today, it’s utilized in the production of fiber optic cables and computer chips. NASA uses helium in its Delta IV rockets and to maintain pressure in liquid oxygen fuel tanks, and the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, needs about 130 tons of helium to operate.

By the mid-1990s, the U.S. government decided to get rid of the reserve, passing the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 and gradually selling the helium stockpile off to private buyers. But as helium was being used more and more, the prices were being kept artificially low, which led to massive waste—so the House of Representatives stepped in with the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 and voted to extend the life of the Federal Helium Reserve. These days, the U.S. is reducing its helium stores to 3 billion, hidden about 3000 feet underground in Amarillo, Texas—conveniently located near two natural gas fields in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas that contain unusually high percentages of helium and are the country’s greatest helium resources. New mining endeavors are expected to create a helium surplus by 2018, so it sounds like we’re in good shape (for now).

8. THE FROZEN ARK

It’s not news that animal species are disappearing at an increasing rate, with a quarter of all known mammals and 10 percent of all birds facing possible extinction within the next couple of decades. In 2004, three British organizations decided to join forces and combat the issue. The Natural History Museum, the Zoological Society of London, and Nottingham University established a “frozen zoo” they called The Frozen Ark Project.

To do this, DNA and living tissue samples are taken from all endangered species that can be accessed and then preserved, so that future generations can study the genetic material far into the future (they generally discount a Jurassic Park scenario, but say it might be possible in a few instances). So far, the Frozen Ark has over 700 samples stored at the University of Nottingham in England—and participating consortium members in the UK, the U.S., Germany, Australia, NZ, India, South Africa, Norway, and Ireland. DNA donations come from museums, university laboratories, and sometimes the animals themselves, via zoos.

9. CHINA’S GIGANTIC URANIUM STOCK

U.S. Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

China's population continues to grow, and the country's power needs continue to rise—so the government is always on the hunt for sources of power. One of the major sources, these days, is nuclear, and in order to ensure nuclear power for a long time, the Chinese government has been stockpiling lots of uranium. The Chinese are already estimated to have nine years worth of uranium, although they don’t disclose any details.

After the Fukushima disaster in Japan and other longstanding concerns about nuclear power, the price of uranium plummeted to less than a quarter of what it was in 2007. The cheap pricetag has been great for China, which has been able to buy large portions of the world market for virtually nothing; when the price of uranium increases again in the future (either due to increased demand or decreased supply), China’s nuclear power plants will continue to operate.

10. THE EU's BUTTER SURPLUS

Like the raisin and helium stockpiles, World War II was the impetus for Europe’s infamous “butter mountain.” Food shortages and economic collapse were fresh in the minds of Europeans, and so the European Economic Community—a precursor to the European Union—began subsidizing farmers. In 1962, the Common Agricultural Policy was created to pay guaranteed, artificially high prices to dairy farmers for surplus products, which were sold to the European public for higher prices, causing a drop in sales. Attempts to compete by non-EU dairies were squelched at the borders by heavy taxes. Then they stockpiled the rest for a rainy day (or world war). In 1986 alone, the EU bought 1.23 million tons of leftover butter.

In the 1970s, word made it to the street of the “butter mountain” that the EU had been tucking away, which was costing taxpayers an enormous amount of money—almost 90 percent of the EEC’s budget in 1970—and outrage ensued. It still took until the ‘90s for something to be done about it, however. Instead of paying farmers for their unwanted butter, the EEC switched to paying them to not produce it. The so-called butter mountain was finally dissolved (or melted?) in 2007.

(It wasn’t an actual mountain of butter, of course, nor was it even kept in the same place—the surplus butter was distributed and placed in cold storage in various silos across the continent. Despite this, though, once the name “butter mountain” been coined by the press, the name stuck.)

In 2009, just two years after the butter was liquidated, the global recession and relative strength of the euro had made it more difficult for dairy farmers to sell their goods. The EU came to the rescue, and the butter mountain was back. The European Commission pledged to buy up to 300,000 tons of butter, at a guaranteed price of €2299 a ton, so its dairy farmers wouldn’t go out of business. Although it was considered more of a “butter molehill” this time around, the butter and other agricultural goods the EU bought cost taxpayers a whopping €280,000,000, and the pressure was on to get rid of it ASAP. As of 2011, a portion of the butter had been donated to the worldwide Food Aid for the Needy program.

11. THE STRATEGIC NATIONAL STOCKPILE

This one’s kind of a no-brainer. Managed by the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Government stocks millions of doses of vaccines, antidotes, antitoxins, antibiotics, and sundry other medications in warehouses scattered across the nation to prep for natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and biological terrorist attacks. The warehouses are distributed such that supplies should be made available to the site of the emergency within 12 hours, whether it strikes in Alaska or Arkansas (and, if needed, the full force of resources can arrive in 24 to 36 hours). The details on locations of the warehouses and their exact contents aren’t publicly available.

Some examples of the known goodies the SNS stocks are smallpox vaccines, Cipro to combat anthrax, and diabetes and blood pressure meds for folks who might be stranded from their homes long-term. These all came in handy during the September 11th attacks in 2001 and in the catastrophic effects wreaked upon southern Louisiana after it was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2009, the SNS responded to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic by releasing a quarter of its influenza-specific supplies—including antiviral drugs, gloves, and face masks—to the American public.

Not sure what kind of disaster you’re dealing with quite yet? The SNS has you covered there, too. If you’ve got a lot of people suffering from an unspecified malady, they’ll send out “push packages”—a grab bag of different medications and supplies—for health care workers to disperse, free of charge.

12. RUSSIA’S TOP-SECRET UNDERGROUND FOOD RESERVE

In a series of former mine tunnels deep below the surface of Central Russia sits a top-secret cache of cereals, sugar, canned meat, and other food staples, all managed by an agency called Rosreserve. The agency—which manages all of Russia's federally-mandated reserves—classifies the food depot a state secret, and so there’s not a lot of information on it, including its location. Nor does anyone outside of Rosreserve seem to know how much food they’ve got packed away down there. But we know that the complex is vast, it’s 400 feet underground, it’s airtight and nuke-proof, and it’s kept at 65 percent humidity and 7 to 8 degrees Celsius—without refrigeration, relying only on the frozen ground to keep things cool. The facility also includes a laboratory, so that the food can be tested against the government’s nutritional standards, and the inventory is rotated on the regular, to ensure that none of it goes bad. About-to-expire food is delivered to consumers, primarily food security agencies.

13. SCOTLAND YARD’S RUBBER BULLET COLLECTION

Just months after riots erupted throughout England in August 2011—which saw looting, arson, and the deaths of five people in response to the killing of Mark Duggan by a police officer—London’s Metropolitan Police thought it might want to be a little more prepared in case it happened again. The Met responded by purchasing 10,000 baton rounds, also known as plastic bullets, to add to its comparably small existing collection of only 700. The new shipment put the Met’s rubber bullet inventory at an all-time high, with a previous record of 6424. It was reported that the rounds are not the police’s preferred method of dealing with conflict, but only that they want to have them available.

The idea behind baton rounds, of course, is to cause pain but not grievous injury or death. But that depends on how far away from a target you fire them from. In 1982, a soldier at a protest rally shot an 11-year-old Northern Irish boy in the head with a baton round from several feet away, killing him. Rubber bullets were used widely by the police in Northern Ireland, in fact, during the ethno-nationalist conflict known as The Troubles, wherein misuse regularly led to serious human injury.

With its new plethora of rubber bullets, the Met also elected to train more of its officers to deploy them correctly, but it wasn’t because of the history of misuse in Northern Ireland. The reason cited was because the police had received criticism during the UK riots for not having enough specialists to make the tactic easily available.

14. THE NORTHEAST HOME HEATING OIL RESERVE

If there’s an area of the U.S. that most needs a stockpile of heating oil, it’s the Northeast. Between its brutal winters and the general dependence of its households on oil as a heating method, a disruption in access to supplies could be a serious problem. That’s why, in 2000, President Bill Clinton directed the creation of the reserve as a component of the existing Strategic Petroleum Reserve, via the Department of Energy.

NEHHOR, as it’s called, isn’t a giant reservoir of oil, though, like one might imagine—instead, a million barrels of ultra-low-sulfur distillate (a.k.a. diesel) are housed in three separate terminals in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Oil is sometimes auctioned off from this stockpile—the U.S. Department of Energy has developed an online bidding system for the purpose of running occasional one-day emergency sales, open to any interested party.

Although NEHHOR was originally intended to be temporary, it’s still around today, and it’s a good thing. It took 12 years, but the reserve was finally opened up in November 2012, when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc throughout much of the Northeast and 2 million gallons of heating oil were delivered to local and federal relief efforts.

15. FOOD SECURITY COMMODITY RESERVE

Among this list of strategic reserves, this is perhaps the most generous one. Called the Food Security Commodity Reserve since 1996, it was originally Title III of the Agriculture Act of 1980 that established a reserve of up to 4 million metric tons of wheat, which would be earmarked for combating famine in developing nations. Although the first incarnation of this reserve was strictly wheat-based, the 1996 farm bill opened the doors to other foodstuffs to be included in the reserve, such as rice, corn, and sorghum.

Subsequently, the Africa: Seeds of Hope Act of 1998 established the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, which added a stockpile of hard cash in order to expand the reach of the Food Security Commodity Reserve, and in 2008, it became an exclusively cash reserve. The cash in the BEHT helps the Office of Food for Peace to supply areas of hunger with provisions without depleting the stores of grain. Recent withdrawals from this cash stash include a donation of $50 million toward provisions for South Sudan during its dire food crisis of 2014.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.

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Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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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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The American Museum of Natural History
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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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