A Bit of Your Brain Thinks Legos Are Real

We have an attentional bias for animate objects -- and Legos.

Ale Art/Flickr

Legos are a lot of things — the stars of blockbuster movies, the building blocks of some pretty cool inventions, and even the very stuff that makes up powerful political art.

They are also, decidedly, not real.

And yet — some small part of your brain actually believes the tiny plastic yellow people of the Lego world are, in fact, real. If you think that sounds crazy, you can blame your brain. Or just embrace it and remember that everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re part of a team.

This Legos-as-reality phenomenon was explored in a recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology. Researchers had dozens of undergrad students participate in three experiments all revolving around the same task: look at black and white static images, some which featured Lego “people” and others with Lego “non-people.” The varying experiments tried to hide the Lego people in different ways — turning their faces away, matching Lego blocks to the size and color the Lego people.

But in each experiment, the human-people were able to locate the Lego-people significantly quicker than the other objects — trees, towers, and the like. This led the researchers to conclude that, somewhere in the brain, Lego people overlap with our perception of animate objects.

You know this Lego isn't alive ... mostly.


This Lego test comes with some precedent. Human attention to animate and inanimate objects has been tested in similar ways: In a past procedure where people were asked to detect changes in rapidly alternative images, they consistently saw changes involving animals faster and more accurately than they did changes in inanimate objects.

Researchers presume this is an evolutionary trait — it serves us well to pay more attention to things that breathe. More technically it’s called “animate monitoring bias” — the process where our brains judge what’s important based on ancestrally important categories like eating, mating, and staying alive.

It remains to be seen whether the same results would occur for other human-formed toys or if people who have never interacted with Legos would have the same reaction. We are hardwired to see faces on inanimate objects, a psychological phenomenon that hints at our never-ending desire to personify the world around us.

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