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Here’s why that weird feeling that what you just read is now everywhere is actually one of the coolest things about being a reader.
Have you ever read a book and picked up on some obscure reference or piece of trivia, something you’d never really heard of before, and then later that week, you hear about it again?
And then a few days later… again?
What is happening here? You’ve never heard of this thing, but now you’ve heard about it three times in the course of a week?
You’re not crazy. This is actually something known as frequency illusion–more commonly referred to as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or the Baader-Meinhof effect.
It got this name from a 1994 letter from Terry Mullen to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He explained that he had just heard of the German terrorist organization called the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and then he happened to see mention of it in the very next day’s newspaper–though the group hadn’t really been in the news for a long time.
We now apply use both terms broadly to describe those moments when we learn something for the first time–or just take notice of it–and it feels like brand-new information, but then suddenly that thing seems to pop up everywhere.
This can sometimes feel a little creepy–is the universe conspiring to put this one thing in front of you? If so, why?
The Science of Frequency Illusion
It may give you the chills, but frequency illusion is actually due to a couple of cognitive processes:
- Selective attention is when something new has already caught your attention in some way, and your brain is now unconsciously attuned to anything else related to it. A million different ideas and things cross our paths every day, and most of them don’t stand out–but those that our brain is already on the lookout for, do.
- Confirmation bias reaffirms your growing belief that whatever thing has caught your attention has suddenly become popular overnight.
One very common example of this overall effect is when someone buys a new red car. The next day, they’re seeing red cars everywhere. It now seems like red cars are the hot new thing, and everyone is buying one.
Of course, it’s not true–but it’s such a common feeling that it has a name, too: “red car syndrome.”
You may also hear this idea called recency illusion, when we think that something we’ve only noticed recently is an entirely new concept, or has suddenly become popular–when, in fact, it’s been around for a long time.
Arnold Zwicky, the Stanford University linguist who coined the phrase, applied it primarily to language–when there seems to be a new word or phrase that’s popular in the zeitgeist–but it, too, is now applied more broadly.
Frequency Illusion and Reading
I was thinking about this phenomenon (and had to look up what it was called) because it happened to me after I finished the book Breathless by Amy McCulloch, which is a thriller set on Manaslu, an 8000 m peak in Nepal.
In the book, a famous climber is attempting to do the impossible: climb all 14 8000 m peaks in the world in less than a year, with no oxygen and no ropes. This, of course, is the catalyst for the mystery that follows. Here’s my mini-review:
Cecily is a journalist who has been given the chance of a lifetime: accompany world-renowned mountaineer Charles McVeigh on a record-breaking climb and get the interview of a lifetime–if she can reach the summit. After some traumatizing climbs in the past, she’s hesitant, but her career needs the boost. As the team prepares for their summit push up Manaslu, several tragedies at lower elevations have her wondering: is the mountain the only killer, or is there one among them as well?
The inherent danger and remoteness of the highest peaks in the world could be the perfect cover for a killer, and McCulloch explores this idea while building the tension. Both the mystery AND the motivation of these extreme climbers (still a mystery to me) kept me hooked; while I suspected a few of the outcomes, the details were still a surprise. I wish a few loose ends had been wrapped up, but overall an excellent wilderness thriller.
Did You Know?
- McCulloch got the idea for Breathless during her own climb of Manaslu in 2019; she was the youngest Canadian woman to ever summit the mountain. This excellent video discusses her journey up the mountain and to writing the book.1
- Breathless has a refreshing focus on the sherpas in Nepal–their expertise, sacrifice, and risk, as well as the boys’ club of climbing, and what it’s like to be a woman in that environment.
- Her next book will be set in Antarctica–another terrifyingly remote setting for a thriller. I’ll be watching for it.2
Now, I am not a mountaineer and have no interest in ever becoming one (though I do live in the Rocky Mountains and love regular old, low-key hiking in the mountains).
I have, however, read a couple of books in the past year about climbing these massive peaks–the other is a nonfiction book called The Next Everest.
So, the topic is a little in my head–mostly because I’m trying to wrap my brain around what drives people to climb these deadly mountains.
Just a couple of days after finishing the book, I was browsing Netflix and came across a documentary called 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, which follows Nepali mountaineer Nims Purja and his team in their attempt to climb all 14 8000 m peaks in the world in less than 7 months (for context: the previous record was 7 years, and the first person who did it took 16 years! Knowing this makes the feat seem superhuman.)
Had I not read this book, this excellent documentary (watch it!) never would have caught my eye. I don’t watch many documentaries–I’m actually surprised it landed in my Netflix purview at all (of course, now Netflix thinks I want to watch all kinds of extreme sports docs.).
This is frequency illusion–specifically, selective attention–in action. I’m sure it would have popped up in my Netflix profile, and I would have scrolled on by, as I do with so many other shows that I pay no attention to.
But because I read a story about mountain climbing and this specific feat of climbing 8000 m mountains in a year, I was primed to notice this documentary about a person doing the same thing.
(BTW, it’s actually not coincidence that McCulloch used this feat in her book: she was a client of Nims Purja’s when she climbed Manaslu herself in 2019. It was before he made his own push to climb all of the mountains, but it’s pretty clear that he was her inspiration for the premise of Breathless.)
Frequency Illusion and Social Media
In another example that ended up being somewhat meta: while I was looking into this idea of frequency illusion and random things you read in books popping up in daily life, I came across this tweet from Linda Holmes:
In Holmes’ wonderful contemporary romance novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over, one of her main characters is a baseball player suffering from a case of the “yips”–which is what they call it when players suddenly seem to lose their previous playing magic–seemingly overnight, and for no real discernible reason.
For readers like me (non-baseball fans) Holmes’ novel is likely their main point of reference for the term, “the yips,” and when they hear it somewhere, they think of Evvie Drake Starts Over–and they let Linda Holmes know about it!
The tweet that I spotted was probably a coincidence, but social media has a way of adding to frequency illusion. The algorithms really do know what we’re paying attention to, and they put more of that in our social media feeds.
A three-second search about a half-formed thought suddenly puts several stories or related products right in front of you, after you’re done consciously looking.
Because these things are no longer coincidences, we do have to work harder to filter out the things trying to grab our attention–our brains may be primed for them, but how much attention do we want to give them?
How Frequency Illusion Can Improve Your Reading Life
It’s an annoying reality of living so much of our lives online that marketers use the phenomenon to their advantage, but frequency illusion can be a positive thing.
Being mindful and aware of the things your brain is attuned to can help you connect more deeply to what you read, prompting you to explore interesting paths you discover in books, and then later come across in real life.
It’s easy to gloss over these things, but here are a few ways to use frequency illusion to practice awareness and connect with the things you read about.
Read Often and Widely
First, is to read at all, which kind of goes without saying if you’re reading this post–presumably you’re already a reader. But reading often and widely helps us see new patterns in the world, connect and synthesize ideas, and make meaning of it all.
And it really doesn’t matter what kind of books you read–just consider the thriller and romance novel examples above. Any kind of book, in any genre, has the potential to put new ideas, facts, and ways of being in front of us. We just have to pay attention to them when we read, and again when we come across those things after we read.
Take Note of Minor Details
When interesting little details come up in books, pay attention. Make a note in your reading journal, and then go back to them.
Take a moment to examine these details. Go to Google, talk to someone, look more closely. You don’t have to become an expert on everything–likely, you won’t.
But it’s pretty exciting to think that some of these details could strike something in you that changes your life.
We did this so often when we were kids–our natural curiosity helped us make connections and understand the world around us. The trick here is continuing to cultivate this curiosity as adults.
Connect with Other Readers–Or the Authors
Authors spend a lot of time researching small things to make their stories as authentic as possible. I’m sure most authors are thrilled to know that their writing–and all of the minutia they researched–resonates with readers.
In Linda Holmes’ case, readers found a small point of connection with her (without demanding a lot of her time).
They may have learned about the yips from this book that they loved, and they wanted to share that moment with her, and with other readers.
Connect with Characters, and Appreciate the Power of Story
Maybe of these readers may have heard about the yips before, but it was when a character they cared about had the yips that it made sense: they learned what they were, but they also learned about the effects of the yips: emotional, psychological, physical.
Suddenly, this abstract concept became a real thing, with real impact on someone.
So that moment, when someone hears about the yips, expands from a simple, “Oh yes, I know what that is,” to a more complete, complex understanding, “Oh, I know what that is, and I have an idea of how this person might be feeling, and how they might have been affected by it.”
They say that reading fiction makes people more empathetic, and I think this is one reason why.
I’d love to know about your own experience with frequency illusion. What did you read about that suddenly seemed to appear in front of you everywhere?