Research has shown that our brains are constantly and rapidly constructing predictive models of what we expect to happen in certain situations, using the input from our senses and our experience in similar contexts. The following is a true story that illustrates what can happen when your brain model encounters an unexpected reality.
As I walked down the hotel hallway, pulling my small rolling suitcase and a laptop bag, I envisioned myself as just moments away from collapsing on the bed and falling asleep, finally bringing to closure my red-eye flight travel adventure. I inserted the cardkey into the slot and pulled it out, noting with satisfaction that the little green light went on. Almost there, I thought. As I pushed open the door though, the vision that greeted me was so bizarre, that I stopped dead in my tracks. I blinked my eyes a couple of times in disbelief. There, standing in the middle of what I thought was my room, were two people engaged in an activity that was so unexpected, I just closed my gaping mouth, blinked again, stepped back, and closed the door.
…24 Hours Earlier
It was Monday morning and I was thinking about the decision I’d made the week before, about taking a red-eye flight Monday night, to attend a 5:00pm Tuesday evening business dinner event in Hartford, Connecticut. For some years now I’d had a personal policy against taking red-eye flights because of my inability to sleep on airplanes and the effect they had on my bio-rhythms. However, against my better judgment, I’d decided to book the red-eye in this case. After all I thought, if my younger colleagues could handle it, I’d need to show them that I could still do it. Besides, as a type A personality, it would allow me to work during the day Monday, then just head out to LAX to catch the 10:00PM non-stop flight to Hartford. The flight would get me in at 6:00AM Tuesday morning and I could sleep in to the afternoon, getting up in time to attend the evening event. It seemed like a good idea at the time…
So as planned, I worked all day Monday and then made my way through traffic to LAX that evening. The flight left on time at 10:00pm Monday night and although it seemed endless because of my inability to sleep, it arrived on time about 6:30AM. By the time I’d picked up the rental car, fought the morning rush hour traffic into downtown Hartford, and parked car at the hotel, it was 8:00am and my tail was really dragging. Trying to check in to a hotel at 8:00am, when everyone else at the counter is checking out was a bit chaotic, but I finally got my cardkey and took the elevator up to my floor.
As I walked down the hotel hallway, pulling my small rolling suitcase and a laptop bag, I envisioned myself as just moments away from collapsing on the bed and falling asleep, finally bring to closure my red-eye flight travel adventure. I inserted the cardkey into the slot and pulled it out, noting with satisfaction that the little green light went on. Almost there I thought. As I pushed open the door though, the vision that greeted me was so bizarre, so out of context that I stopped dead in my tracks. I blinked my eyes a couple of times in disbelief. There, standing in the middle of what I thought was my room, were two people engaged in an activity that was so strange and unexpected, that I just closed my gaping mouth, blinked again, stepped back, and closed the door.
I stood in front of the closed door for just a moment, re-playing in my head the scene I’d just witnessed. Standing in a space created by furniture that had been pushed to the sides of the room, two young men were juggling bowling pins back and forth to each other.
I walked back to the elevator, stunned and a bit disoriented. Had I really seen what I thought I saw, or was my red-eye flight fried brain playing mind games on me? I made my way back to the lobby and the front desk. Embarrassed to describe to the hotel clerk what thought I’d seen, I simply told him that I’d erroneously been given a key to a still occupied room. The clerk apologized profusely and gave me a new cardkey to a room on a different floor. Again I made what I hoped would be the final leg of my journey to my room, followed by glorious sleep. At the same time however, I also feared my brain might have yet another surprise in store for me. I unlocked and cautiously opened the door to my new room, uncertain what to expect. Fortunately, this time I was greeted by a comfortingly empty room.
I got in to bed as quickly as I could, and fell asleep. Unfortunately, whether because of the events of the morning, or time zone effects, my eyes popped wide open at noon and I couldn’t get back to sleep. So I finally gave in, got up, showered and shaved and went down to the hotel restaurant to grab some lunch. I was still thinking about my surreal early morning experience, and I even tried to convince myself that maybe it had all been just a nightmare dreamed during my aborted morning nap. I’d never in my life experienced anything even close to this kind weirdness and wasn’t sure how to process it.
After lunch I decided to walk next door to the Convention Center to see where our business dinner was going to be held. Walking through the building, I turned a corner and came upon a large sign perched on an easel. It announced in big, boldly colored letters, “Welcome to the U.S. Amateur Juggling Championships!” The door to the room was open, allowing me to see all manner of people juggling, all manner of things. Rings, balls, and yes, even bowling pins (jugglers apparently call them clubs). I even caught a glimpse the two people I’d seen juggling in the hotel room that morning. Suddenly all of the pieces of my brain puzzle fell magically in place…all of the dots were now connected…the brain fog had cleared, and my world was no longer on tilt!