There was and is a metaphor floating around about “how your brain is wired,” having to do with how two people’s brains can—at least superficially—appear to work very differently from each other. Turns out, of course, that this particular model of the brain isn’t entirely inaccurate. We do form synaptic connections all through our lives. Some people have stronger ties to the sections of the brain in charge of fight or flight—they’re the sort of people who tend to see terrorists/commies/Godzilla-size ebola viruses around every street corner. Some people have stronger connections to their aural or visual senses and tend more toward music and art. Note the word “tend” there in both examples. Biology, as they say, isn’t destiny. We’re no more slaves to our wiring than we are slaves to our instincts. But they are both there, and getting through your day without unnecessary drama often depends on understanding what you’re working with. Most people don’t know that their brains are programmed to react, they just…react. You don’t have to look far to see the consequences.
Something all human brains share is a talent for spotting patterns. We’re very good at it. So good, in fact, that the brain wants to see patterns, and often finds them when they aren’t there. Likely it had survival value at one point. Maybe that pattern of light and shadow in the thicket was a leopard waiting to pounce, maybe it wasn’t. Best to avoid that thicket either way. We still do it, though, which explains all those folk who keep seeing Elvis’ face in tree bark or Jesus on a piece of toast. The term for that is “matrixing.” It even works aurally. I normally sleep with an electric fan running at night, even with A/C. Keeps things just a little cooler and the white noise is good for sleeping. And yet my brain wants to turn the noise of the fan and the flow of air past my ear into something else. I call it the “Netherworld Broadcast.” It actually sounds as if I’m listening to a radio that’s turned down just below the point that I can’t make out words, but I know someone is speaking. The intonation, cadence, all sound like a news broadcast that I can’t quite make sense of. I can imagine how I’d react if I didn’t know what it was, but I do know. It’s just matrixing. I like to listen anyway. Just in case.
Another example: Yesterday a co-worker came into my office and asked me if I’d been to the movies lately. I hadn’t, since I don’t go to the movies often and said so. Did I like scary movies? Again, no, I’m not a big movie watcher in general, and I tend more toward Asian cinema and fantasy films when I do. So then the co-worker launched into a long monologue about what scary films she’d seen lately, giving me the long-form description of the plots and why it was based on something true and…
There’s apparently such a thing as an emotional IQ, so I’m thinking there’s also such a thing as a social IQ, both very separate from the old-fashioned—and inadequate—intelligence tests. My regular IQ may be not too shabby but my social IQ has to score somewhere between “keep an eye on him” and “bless his heart.” So while she’s talking I’m trying to maintain an expression of polite interest all the while thinking, “Why are you still talking?”
I mean, I give myself a little credit. That’s not the kind of question you ask a person without being a complete jerk. I try not to be a complete jerk. Still, to me that’s a legitimate question. Why was she still talking? Since I couldn’t ask her to answer that, my inclination is to try and figure out the answer on my own. Maybe she has Tourette’s? No. I’ve been around her long enough to know that’s not it. Maybe her Social IQ is even worse than mine, and can’t take a hint? Possible. Maybe she’s unhappy at home and just needs to talk? Possible. Why? Husband cheating? Under pressure from her family to have more kids? There’s something in her closet that she’s too terrified to talk about so she talks about this instead hoping someone will pick up the hint? That’s good. I like that. What sort of creature?
See what happened there? She’s talking about scary movies and all the while I’m turning it into a story. I knew that was what I was doing, because it’s the kind of thing writers tend to do, rather than, say, actually listening when someone is talking to you. Nothing wrong with it except when there is, and there often is. How to know? Well, one doesn’t, always. My long-suffering wife can attest to that, but it does help to know how your wiring works when you need to make that judgment, so some self-assessment is probably in order. Keeps knee-jerk and unthinking reactions to a minimum, and we all should be for that.
Knowledge is power, but Ignorance sure isn’t bliss. Rather, it tends to screw bliss up good.