Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Logic leaps and the misheard sentence

The mind is an amazing thing.  It can create logical leaps where there is only the miasma of chaos.  Contrary to my previous post, this is more to do with the stories people make up to explain everyday objects than with the links that might actually make sense.

Take, for example, duct tape.  I had a friend who was convinced it was ‘duck’ tape, and everyone else was just saying it wrong.  A friend of a friend thought it was ‘duck’ tape, too, but because it was grey, and ducks are also grey, kind of in the same way glue is made from horses because it’s white and horses are white. 

Sometimes these misunderstandings can come from not being able to hear what the other person has said.  Today I was convinced that a student had asked me what the content of “one third of a cookie nest” was.  I tried to answer him reasonably, until it came out he was actually asking after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Similarly, if you listen to any of the strange, half-heard things I’ve said in my time as a teacher, apparently Dwarf is not a skill and my favourite colour is things exploding.

People like to create stories.  That’s where mythology came from, the desire to explain the inexplicable.  I see this in action every time I try to talk to my Grandad when he doesn’t have his hearing aid in.  It’s entertaining, but not entirely informative; then again, personal conversations don’t always have to be.  It’s the simple act of communicating that’s important.

But I digress.  In the cyberpunk realm of the game I’m playing at the moment, 6 of the members were discussing the safety of the creek, due to the radioactive element common to most cyberpunk futures.  My reasoning was that, since the creek is surrounded by trees, the water was probably safe.  The newest player, who is familiar with roleplaying, but not especially cyberpunk, responded to this statement by saying, “Uh, yeah, sure, I totally can’t imagine a child being abducted and murdered in that creek! Thank God for those trees!”  The mental blank as we all tried to make the same logic leap lead to an impressive silence.  Similarly, when my character was trying to teach an NPC a lesson, he dragged him outside of his house, and made him act like a letterbox.  I’m pretty sure that didn’t make sense to anyone else, either.

How does this differ from being crazy?  I’m not sure, but everyone does it.  Perhaps that’s the only true definition of what makes an action ‘crazy’ – how many other people are doing the same thing?  As many stories have explored, if everyone is strangling kittens and dancing skyclad, the guy who keeps cats and is modestly dressed is going to be an outcast.  And, just now, I could have sworn I heard a male team-mate say he’s got a flashbang in his bra.  This night just keeps getting weirder.

Of course, this kind of deciding-upon-a-logic-that-fits-my-worldview goes perfectly with the recently-released trailers for Portal 2.  As GLaDOS says, “I’m sure we can put our differences aside.  For science.  You monster.”  The idea that the player was somehow in the wrong in the original Portal is laughable; the idea that GLadoS still clings to that ‘injustice’ makes it even more so.  It’s not usually as obvious, when someone has a worldview that doesn’t mesh with reality, but it’s a different kind of crazy, or perhaps the only kind.  In this case, GLaDOS knows that what she’s doing is right, or doesn’t see how anyone could object, so the person or people acting contrary to her plans must be evil.  We do the same thing with people who cut us off in traffic, take the donut we were about to take, or get anything we wanted, imagined or real, explicitly stated or not.  There’s a little bit of a sociopath in all of us, and it loves telling stories.

That, however, is quite morbid.  There’s a large capacity in most people that enjoys telling stories to delight or entertain.  It’s the stories we tell to ourselves that become a bit more sinister.  We are our own unreliable narrators, and our reconstructive memory makes our task only easier.  That it allows us to tell other stories, pleasant stories, to other people, for money, is a wonderful, capricious thing.  That we can mishear something, and make up a new meaning that somehow fits in with what we thought we heard, and respond, is an entertaining, and sometimes disturbing, thing.  All in all, language is but a collection of sounds, and our brains do all the hard work to turn it into information.  Hooray for neuroscience!

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