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Weird, Wonderful Fun (And… Shh… Learning) Offered at McPherson College’s ‘Behavior Mania’

Don’t let on. While the Behavior Mania event at McPherson College is mostly about fun, there’s also a huge helping of learning being served up as well.

The 8th annual event was an opportunity on Oct. 27 for high school students from around the area to learn more about psychology, sociology and criminal justice, with engaging activities and presentations.

Each group of high school students travelled from one interactive encounter to another, with each room offering an interesting lesson related to the behavioral sciences. Through fun, the hope is to pique students’ interest in the subject.

In welcoming students to the event, Patrick Masar, senior admissions and financial aid counselor, told the students to prepare for some mind-bending experiences.

“Behavior Mania is one of our favorite things,” he said. “By the end of the day, we’re going to have your head spinning.”

The 60 students at the event arrived from seven area high schools – Chase, Centre (in Lost Springs), Bishop Carroll Catholic (Wichita), Elyria Christian (McPherson), Kingman, Norwich, and South Gray (Montezuma).

In one room, an activity called “The Pendulum Knows” had students experimenting with weighted pendulums on a chain – the sort that are popular among some groups for “fortune telling” purposes.

Dr. Bryan Midgley, associate professor of psychology, however, had a much more scientific and benign approcach. Rather than looking for “divination,” the students were just asked to think about “Finding Nemo” – defined by two stickers along one line – or “Superheroes” – indicated by stickers placed at either end of a line perpendicular to the first.

Holding the pendulum above the lines, students were instructed to try to keep the weight still and only think of one of the two subjects that they drew from a basket. Later, they were asked to try thinking of a circle or a line to see what would happen.

Zach Barney, a junior at Centre High School, ended up creating some of the strongest effects in one session, as the pendulum swung about half a foot side to side along the “Nemo” line and created a wide circle – without any conscious effort on his part.

“That’s really weird,” he said to himself.

Dr. Midgley explained that there were no spirits or telepathy at work. Instead, the best scientific explanation is that thinking about a shape or a direction creates imperceptible micro-movements in the hand that are amplified by the pendulum and chain.

“Psychology, I think, is most interesting when we take old ideas and look at them in a new perspective,” Dr. Midgley said.

Afterward, Barney talked about how interesting the experience was to him. He’s considering a possible minor in an area of the behavior sciences in college.

“So much goes on in the mind that we don’t know about,” he said, “And to actually learn about it is really cool.”

Other activities on the day included “We’re Having a Ball,” in which students had to work together and communicate to keep foam balls from falling through holes cut into large blue plastic tarps. Meanwhile Dr. Stephen Hoyer, a guest professor in behavioral sciences, presented “Big Head” – an exploration of optical illusions and the tricks the mind can play.

In the illusion that the activity is named after, students looked at hypnotic, rotating spiral. After a while, Dr. Hoyer had the students quickly look to his face – giving a momentary impression of his head expanding.

Other illusions he discussed were apparent movement where none actually exists (a phenomenon that allows cartoons to appear to move) and perceptual tricks based on expectations.

For example, he put an image on the projector screen of just a handful of white dots on a black background. It looks like nothing until those dots start to move and gives the clear sense of a person walking.

“In your head there are files of stuff you know about the world,” he said, “And your brain looks through those to see what it resembles.”

In another trick about expectations, Dr. Hoyer showed a picture of a tiger and explained that there was another hidden tiger in the picture. After a while, it becomes suddenly apparent that the words “Hidden Tiger” are formed by the tiger’s stripes.

“Once you see it, you can’t not see it,” he said. “Your brain is logical. It assumes that the stripes are random. No one writes on a tiger.”