Nila’s post on a kerfuffle over a scathing video review is a reminder that we’re all human. In fact, it’s our human foibles that make the best hooks for stories because it is easy to see ourselves in the failings of others. In the case of the two ill-behaved authors, neither should have acted the way they did but help me if I can’t see myself in both of them.
So, for the post-Thanksgiving stupor, here’s some musings on human nature and the way our brains work.
Hours of careful research watching fail videos with my son have left me with a number of insights. One, of course, is never let your child ride anything wheeled without a helmet, nor try any stunt without a cup. But better for the writer, never underestimate a young male’s thirst for glory. It may manifest in the 21st century as really stupid parkour attempts but it has to go back to before humans could speak. Glory-seeking is a proven motivation for young heroes, especially if a woman is watching. The popularity of these videos is also a testament to the enduring appeal of schadenfreude, although in our defense, my son and I prefer the silly ones to the ones where someone gets hurt.
There are a few other tidbits to be gleaned from these videos. Do you know that infants and very young toddlers go stiff when they fall? It must be an evolutionary advantage, I’m guessing because it makes it easier for a parent to catch a slipping child. I vaguely recall that from my own sons’ infant days: it’s easier to catch a board than a pile of jelly, not that I ever dropped my child.
Today, while in Old Navy, I had the chance to coach my son on the finer points of life, another tradition dating back to pre-humanity (most mammals train their offspring in someway, from a lioness teaching a cub to hunt, to a mare nudging a colt into the herd.) Of course, these days, it’s not so much about where to find prey or how to make a fire but more important things like, “Son, when your girlfriend or wife is shopping, make her carry the stuff she wants to buy. That way, the shopping trip will end sooner.” My wife stuck her tongue out at me but I was simply furthering an ancient father-son tradition, really, it was more of a duty than anything else.
Something even older than mammals: organic brains are wonderful pattern-matchers. Even pre-brain ganglia do this to some extent as they desensitize to repeated stimulus. A simple fish will learn the signs of when food is around. Any animal will stay away from something that makes it sick. The first grazer by the water hole probably swiftly learned to watch out for those floating logs that might be a crocodile.
Pattern-matching, may, in fact, be the primary purpose of brains beyond the basic control of body, feeding, reproduction, etc. Every mammal learns the basic patterns related to season, time of day, and various warning signs. I remember a mouse trap experience: I bought a fancy electronic one, supposedly a swift kill. I didn’t mind the mice myself so much but when one surprised my wife in the bathroom at night, they had to go. So I smeared peanut butter, as recommended, as the bait and zap: caught one the first night. Never caught one after that. I bet it’s because the mouse voided some “this place is bad” scent as it died and the trap no longer smelled good to other mice, despite the peanut butter.
Fast forward to humans and marvel at the patterns we find. Many are real. Grumpy lady at the DMV counter? Tread carefully because she can and will make your life miserable. A bunch of young men drinking from paper bags on a street corner after dark? Maybe there’s a better way to get to where I’m going. With our mammalian brains, we are excellent at gleaning patterns, even if we don’t realize what we’re doing. With our human intellect, we are outstanding at it. Of course, this can get us into trouble.
One place is stereotypes. As someone who recognizes the pattern-matchers in our heads, I’m not actually hostile to stereotypes. They can sometimes be useful. Of course, in contemporary life, they can be also be troublesome. They can even be immoral if a stereotypes keeps someone from doing something they are well suited to do. But we all make use of them. They are a natural response of our organic brain to the available stimulus so no point pretending they don’t exist. Acknowledging them can help you bypass your evolutionary wiring and do the right thing, when necessary.
As a writer, stereotypes are a mixed blessing. If your reader shares the same stereotypes, which they often do, you can make use of them to shorten a character sketch. Some stereotypes are likely to be accepted without much issue, such as a little girl playing with a doll, but many cause a negative reaction in your reader, sometimes enough to lose them. Even the doll example might lose some readers, although hopefully fewer in this post-feminist age. It’s a gray line because one person’s stereotype is another person’s archetype. In the end, better to steer clear of them or at least be conscious of how you are using them.
Another aspect of our pattern matching is superstition. I’m not personally superstitious, except when it comes to D&D dice: hey, I need some excuse to have so many dice because I really don’t need a pound of them for any other reason. Even so, I don’t really begrudge the superstitious because that’s what you get when you give a mammalian brain the awesome computing power of a human brain. Especially when you look to superstition in the medieval or ancient world, it’s my opinion that for most people, it made some sense of a crazy world.
A well-educated Roman might (and did, we have many of their writings), scoff at the superstitious but for most in that day, raised on only stories and what they could observe with their eyes, it was easy to attribute misfortune, disease, war, famine, etc., to the violation of some arcane ritual or the ill-will of a displeased god.
For one, they had few valid data points to extrapolate on. Saw two different people run over by a cart while wearing a striped shirt? Maybe I just won’t wear striped shirts anymore. I warn my children of the peril. Generations later, there may be a prohibition against wearing striped shirts, for reasons unknown. (In the Imperial period there were many customs, even ritual phrases, whose meanings were lost in the mists of time.)
Those who study how people react to bad news, do so in part to understand our fascination with gruesome events. We’re fascinated by things like the following, even though the odds of it happening to you are miniscule:
Humberto Hernandez, a 24-year-old Oakland, California resident, was killed after being struck in the face by an airborne fire hydrant while walking. A passing car had struck the fire hydrant and the water pressure shot the hydrant at Hernandez with enough force to kill him.
(Wikipedia has an article for everything! More disturbing is how many of the stories I already knew because of my own fascination with bizarre deaths.)
Once upon a time, our ancestors lived as hunter-gathers in small groups. Even with annual gatherings of larger groups, they might have only known of 2000 people in their entire lifetime. If something bad happens to 1 in 2000 people, it isn’t that unreasonable to worry that it might happen to you. If it happens to in 1 in 6 billion people, maybe you really shouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Great advice but our brains are wired to worry about anything we hear about. Good for hunter-gathers, bad for media-connected 21st century humans.
It’s like the move to soft baseballs. I can see the reason for it as a parent but as an engineer, I can’t help but note that probably more kids die in car accidents on the way to baseball games than actually die from a hard baseball to the chest. Still, we do it because it’s all about control: we can’t control the car accidents (or maybe fool ourselves that we can, since we are the driver) but we can control the baseball, so we do.
Back to superstitions: they allow(ed) people to feel they had some control over what otherwise seemed a chaotic world. Superstition is just another way of organizing and categorizing the world, another way to allow a human to predict outcomes. If I don’t wear a striped shirt, a wagon won’t run me over.
It’s not so different in our age. If our infant’s binkie falls on the floor, we clean it. Of course, we know there are actually microbes that might make them sick, but how do we know this? Did we culture the floor and examine it under the microscope? No, unless you happen to be a microbiologist, you know this because someone told you, in person, through a book, a documentary, whatever. So, in the end, like the advice to not wear a striped shirt, it is just something we learned from others. We may have more convincing reasons behind it but this idea of questioning received wisdom is something rather recent, and for most of human history, perhaps not really a good trait. Maybe the advice to not wear a striped shirt is not too valuable but the advice to not swim in a waterhole that herd animals are avoiding might be really good advice. Chomp, says the crocodile.
As to those dropped binkies? For the first few months with the first baby, they get washed in the dishwasher on the anti-bacterial cycle. By the second child, he’s lucky if it gets wiped off before it’s stuck back in his month. Bad parenting you say? Not at all: it’s more pattern matching. You see, by the second child, we parents have observed all the things our children put in their mouths and they didn’t get sick! So, we skip the binkie sterilization. What’s the point? He puts everything else on the floor in his mouth. Hey, he even licks the floor.
This makes me recall a friend’s tale of his toddler coming from the backyard with half a slug in her hand.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I fished the rest out of her mouth.”
“Why? It wasn’t going to hurt her.”
“Yeah but it was really gross.”
True. One of the perils of life in the northwest. Here’s another and it’s a pattern I learned from only a single incident, and one you can benefit from without having to suffer it yourself: when walking on decking at night or early morning in Oregon, wear shoes. Smushing a fat slug between your toes is really no fun at all.
Back to writing, there are many ways to make use of your readers’ pattern matching but one of the most powerful is the rule of the three. Myself, I love it both as a reader and a writer. It’s basically, two events set a pattern, a third incident (that violates it) breaks it. It’s a wonderful tool from D&D games to books to movies because humans pick up on the pattern without even realizing it, which means they develop a visceral expectation of what comes next. So when you break the pattern, they are surprised and entranced at a core level.
What crazy patterns have you observed among your fellows, or your own behavior? Do you make use of patterns in your own writing?
- Superstitions (alrasub.com)
- A Stereotypical Blog Post (theworldasidiscoverit.wordpress.com)
- Smashing Superstitions – Even Pigeons Can Do It (martinspribble.com)