Wednesday, December 14, 2005


And again I'm too tired to write this up properly. John wanted to do our annual Toys for Tots ritual tonight, so off we went to Toys R Us, after a quick stop at Best Buy for the director's cut of The Frighteners. This year we got the last box of 64 Crayola Crayons, a Cali Girl Barbie, 3 Hot Wheels cars, a tube of dinosaurs and a baby animal safari set. I think I'm forgetting at least one item, but you get the idea. We tried to get Monopoly, which was on sale for $7.99 in the plain vanilla non-deluxe edition; but all they had left was a Spanish language one (with a damaged box!) for $2 more, and the pricier anniversary and licensed character versions. Best of all, there was someone there standing guard over an actual Toys for Tots box. The donation bins have been getting harder to find over the years, so we were surprised and pleased that we didn't have to go from store to store looking for one.

So now it's 11:37 at night, and I really don't feel up to writing this. So let's do a Part One, shall we? Or is it Part Two?

I mentioned before about the fact that our ability to think and learn, understand and do depends largely on the brain's ability to recognize patterns and create categories, often without our quite realizing that this is happening. For example, how do you know a table when you see one? How does your brain define the concept of table? Is it something you eat off of? Is it something with a flat surface, and if so, does anything with a flat surface qualify? What makes it a table instead of a desk? Is it a table whether it has four legs or three, or one or none? If it has no legs, are we outside the boundaries of the table concept, and into "box" territory instead?

These are potentially tricky questions, but we seldom ask them. We don't have a mental checklist - at least, not consciously. We don't think about the Platonic ideal of a table, and see how the one in our friend's kitchen measures up. We merely look at a thing, recognize it as a "table" and move on.

Sometimes, though, it's not so easy to recognize the pattern, and know what we're looking at, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes the data is truly new to us, and relatively unconnected to what we have on file. Other times, it's just out of context. For example, what do you see in the picture above? Can you identify it? It's not as easy as a table. The pattern is less clear, and there are fewer identifying clues. So your brain has to work at it, and eventually comes up with...what? And how do you know the pattern your brain came up with to categorize this is the right one?

There's no shame in calling a table a table, putting a mere piece of furniture into a category and calling it by a certain name. But what if your brain is trying to comprehend and categorize something more sensitive and more complex, namely a person? Do you identify someone as falling into certain categories: friend, enemy, co-worker, family, acquaintance, stranger? How about white or black, Hispanic or Native American, Indian or Iraqi, one of Us or one of Them? And once the person is so labeled, do you assume traits associated with that category, and stop trying to understand the person as an individual?

Even if we intellectually know better then to do this, it's easy to fall into the trap of categorizing, labeling - stereotyping. We can't fully analyze everything we see and do. We'd never get anything done if we had to stop and figure out what a table is, what a red light means, what authority the boss has over us, whether someone if a firefighter or a cop, every time we encountered the phenomenon. So we use shortcuts. We have to. But those shortcuts can get us into trouble.

For example, we may go into a hardware store, see someone with a red apron and a nametag, label that person "store employee," and interact with the person as a store employee. We don't usually bother to find out that the store employee is named Bill, has three children and a cat, and attends the local Baptist church. The label "store employee" is good enough, if all we want is yellow paint or mousetraps. But ultimately we are shortchanging the person, even with such a benign label as "store employee." Bill may be a blogger, an amateur astonomer, an English major - anything, even a potential close friend. But we'll never know this if we settle for the easy categorization.

And the problem is worse if we've made patterns of things that don't really belong together. What if Bill can be tagged a member of some other category - black, Hispanic, Jewish, Republican (probably not all of these!)? Have we set up a pattern to go with that label, assigning some negative trait derived from tv stereotypes, the attitudes of parents and peers, or our past experience with some other individual? If so, then suddenly Bill is saddled with - and blamed for - a fault he may not have. He ceases to be even an emotionally neutral "store employee" to us. He becomes a "them" - a subhuman, not quite deserving our courtesy and respect. (Of course, many people treat virtally all store employees that way, regardless of ethnicity or affiliation.)

It's coming up on 2 AM, so I'll stop my little rant here for now. Have you figured out that photo yet? Does this second one help?

Assuming you now know what this is, do you find yourself imposing further patterns on what you see? Looks kind of like a reindeer, doesn't it?



Gabreael said...

Ohh, I love that last moon shot.


Globetrotter said...

Looks like a Schizophrenic moon to me. Or a moon having an aneurism.

I can't see a reindeer at all.
My feelings are real

Inside the Gilded Cage

Dark Side of the Moon

Becky said...

I knew is was moonlight through a tree instantly...but in the last photo...looks more like a hound dog with his floppy ears in the air and nose to the ground. LOL I don't tend to make snap judgements based on occupation or appearance. I do tend to judge people on their attitude. If I meet someone when they are having a bad day and they say or do something negative, I don't tend to forget that. I had a friend who was very observant. She would form opinions of people based on the car they drove, the clothes they wore, the haircut, etc. She would say things like "That dye job came out of a box and that outfit is off-the-rack Kmart." I would just shrug. I never notice stuff like that. My mother always said I go through life in my own little world. Oblivious. I don't think I'm oblivious. I just don't bother to notice certain things. I look for something deeper.

Sarah said...

I love it when you write about brain stuff.

chasferrus said...

Loved your semantics discussion, but maybe because it is 7:45 AM and not the 11:45 PM you struggled with it.