The human brain is weird, as The Irrational 1×03 “The Barnum Effect” reminds us. One of the best things about this show (other than star Jesse L. Martin as Alec Mercer is that all the ways it shows us that our brains are weird are grounded in reality. I’m all about stories exploring the strangeness of the human condition.
Can You Hear Me Now?
The third episode of The Irrational focuses on the death of a commercial pilot and one central question: was it suicide or an accident? The pivotal piece of evidence to answer the question takes the form of a recording of the pilot’s last words. Are they a red pill/black pill pronouncement? Or is he saying there’s something wrong with the plane?
It seems strange that the same recording could be interpreted entirely different ways by different people. But that’s what The Barnum Effect is all about. You hear what you expect to hear. And that’s true, whether you’re listening for a motive for suicide.
In “The Barnum Effect,” the F.B.I. thinks the dead pilot was part of a Red Pill/Black Pill movement, and his last words were his way of announcing his suicide because “Women Bad.” Mercer, of course, is able to prove that they’re hearing what they expect to hear. In reality, the Pilot was announcing that a system on his plane had malfunctioned, causing the crash.
Brains Are Stupid
The most brilliant scene in the episode (in the “proving our brains are making stuff up half the time” sense) was the scene in which he proved it. It reminded me of a “Brainstorm or Green Needle” recording I listed to a few years ago. Those two words/phrases are nowhere near similar. So why can you hear both, depending on which you’re listening for? Because brains are stupid, that’s why.
And it’s because brains are stupid that The Irrational could continue almost indefinitely, really. They’ll never run out of material.
Which leads me to something I’m looking forward to, when it comes to the series. Alec Mercer understands how weird our brains can be, so he’s very good at circumventing our innately human weirdness. But he’s as human as the rest of us. So surely – surely – his brain will take him for a ride at some point, too. Even if he’s able to catch on before the end of the episode. At some point, Mercer’s going to think he’s outsmarted his brain, only to be proven wrong. And I frankly can’t wait to see it.
The Irrational airs Mondays on NBC.