Monday, October 10, 2011

Once you start, you can't stop. (Cool Things I Never Learned In School)(Thinking The Lions)



I see faces, and so do you, and because I see faces, I'm probably wrong about the bees. But if I am wrong about the bees, then maybe Carl Jung was wrong about beetles.

I'll explain.

Not long ago, I was sitting in the emergency room waiting for a chest X-ray results to come back -- the trip to the ER having been made against my will because I knew I didn't need the emergency room.

That's another story, I suppose; briefly put, I had been having a bad day, heart-wise, and had chest pains and trouble breathing, but not the heart-attack-y-kind of chest pains, which I know all too well. So I went to the Urgent Care, where I took care to describe my symptoms and then took care to specifically tell the doctors it was not a heart attack, pointing out that I knew what a heart attack felt like because, you know, I'd had one. Only when you have had a heart attack, every time you have a medical condition that's anything but "Stepped on a rusty nail" you're going to get an EKG and shipped off to the ER.

Which is what happened to me: I got shipped off to the ER, where I lay on a stretcher trying to breathe and not be dizzy and also to keep patiently explaining to the various doctors, nurses, and anyone else who walked by that I was not having a heart attack, and also that my vision was going kind of tunnel-y, which I found concerning.

They gave me a vision test, then, which, I'm pleased to note, I passed.

Five months later, I'm left with no answers about what I now call my liver condition, other than to assume, on my own, that it's because of the bees, and to then find out that I might just blame the bees because that's what people do, and also because it's all related to seeing faces in things where there are no faces.

Here's how I get from "I'm not having a heart attack" to "Blaming the bees is kind of related to the Man In The Moon."

That night, while I was waiting to have the ER doctors confirm what I'd been telling them all along -- that I wasn't having a heart attack, remember -- which they eventually confirmed -- I had nothing to occupy me except my cell phone, and the curtain that cut me off from the rest of the ER.

The curtain hanging in front of me was one of those abstract-y curtains that had a bunch of little boxes each with sort of shadow-y figures in it, and I occupied myself for a while by trying to figure out the pattern of the boxes... because (a) I'm that kind of person and (b) what else are you going to do in the ER, play Angry Birds? You can't do that. If you play Angry Birds in the ER, they're going to treat you less seriously than they already treat you, and am I alone in having an inferiority complex at the ER? They never take me seriously, it feels like. When I went there after the bee stings, they gave me some Benadryl and were going to send me home right up until I collapsed. When I went there a week later with a heart attack, they gave me some antacids and were going to send me home, again. Then, when I went there against my will and told them it definitely wasn't a heart attack but it was something else kind of serious seeming, they treated me for a heart attack.

Plus, they checked my vision. I can't forget that.

Anyway, laying there looking at the curtain pattern, I came to realize that every fourth block or so had a pattern in it that looked exactly like a stylized, 80s-woman-wearing-sunglasses. I was convinced that was what it was; I could see the 80s-lady so clearly that after a while I couldn't not see it.

I didn't get a picture of it, but if you ever saw one of those Nagel paintings like the one that's on this post, you get the idea; the woman on this post in fact is almost exactly what this blob-on-the-curtains looked like.

Eventually, I got out of the ER, with no answers (but okay vision), and I almost forgot about the woman, but not completely, because here's the thing: I knew that there was no woman on those curtains.

It was an entirely abstract pattern. I was sure of that. But yet, I'd seen a woman.

That's what led me to realize, this morning, that my feeling about the bees was probably wrong entirely.

See, I knew that the reason I'd seen a woman on the curtains is because humans are, in fact, hard-wired to see faces. I read an article a long time ago that noted that -- that human beings tend to pick out details in any random assortment of objects and mentally assemble them into faces, which is why this commercial exists:



What I didn't know, until today, was that there's a word for that: Pareidolia, or the phenomenon of seeing stimulus in a random sound or image.

I know that word because I went looking for it today, to find out why it is that humans assemble things into faces, only once I found out the word for it, I found out that people don't just assemble random objects into faces -- we take almost every random thing we see, things that are jumbles or mix-ups or mishmashes or simply white nose -- and assign meaning to it.

Pareidolia is how the Rorschach inkblots work, it's been used to explain how people keep seeing Jesus in their snack foods, and, in one case, led a Japanese researcher to conclude that humans had not evolved at all, but had simply always looked like humans... only we were once only 3.5 millimeters tall.

That guy, Chonosuke Okamura, actually took photographs of what he thought were fossilized remains of tiny people, and more than tiny people, tiny dogs, and even tiny gorillas. He published pictures of the fossilized faces of tiny humans:



Pareidolia also helps explain why there's a man in the moon,





And a face on Mars:





And a whole bunch of other things that look like things, like a sasquatch on the sun.

I'd gone looking for the word for seeing faces in things, and found it -- but what I found before I found that word was a different word: apophenia, which is a related phenomenon, and means the experience of seeing patterns in random collections of data.

Apophenia is what Carl Jung blamed for people believing in synchronicity, and what's possibly responsible for my thinking that all this not-having-heart-attacks is related to the original bee stings that I got about a year ago that led to all the trouble. Apophenia, as I see it, is a feeling that things can't be coincidental.

I had a case once where a woman was in a low-impact car accident and developed a very serious injury as a result of that accident, at least according to us and her doctor. The insurance company defending the case claimed the accident hadn't caused the injury -- but the symptoms of the plaintiff's condition began shortly after the accident, and repeatedly, throughout the years that I worked on this case, someone from our side would raise the question: Do they want us to think that's just coincidence?

That's how I came to blame the bees for my ongoing not-a-heart-attack: I'd never had any problems before, then I got stung by bees, then I had problems, including heart attacks and not-heart attacks. Do they want me to think that's just coincidence?

But maybe it is; what Jung meant was that events can be grouped by cause-and-effect -- the bees caused me to have a heart attack -- or by meaning: The bees caused me to suffer, and other things cause me to suffer, and I therefore relate them to the same thing.

What's interesting is that Jung, who coined the term synchronicity, didn't seem to ultimately believe that things were just coincidence: Jung talked with Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli about his theories of synchronicity and how they might relate to then-evolving theories of quantum mechanics, and later on seemed to believe himself in synchronicity as more than just our brains imposing order on random events, but as something larger. He wrote of treating a patient:


A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream, I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from the outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which, contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt the urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since.

That leaves open the question, still, of whether we impose order on random events, or random events aren't random. Suppose Jung's patient had been talking not about beetles, but about clouds. Jung likely wouldn't have thought anything about the beetle knocking at his window, other than that it was an annoyance.

Jung's thinking on the topic led me to looking at Littlewood's Law, which is a law that says you can expect a miracle to happen about once a month. Littlewood based that on a theory that a miracle is a "one in a million" event -- something of special significance that occurs about one time out of every million events. Littlewood then said we experience one event per second, most of them unexceptional (you reading this line is an event.) In 35 days or so, you've gone through 1,000,000 waking moments, and so the odds are that something exceptional happened to you in one of those moments.

Exceptional being the key word; when I looked at the pattern of my songs randomly played on my iPod during one jogging session, each one had something to do with health, or life, or death -- an exceptional occurrence, that such synchronicity would occur while I was jogging. Except that we're back to my imposing the significance on the songs, especially depending on how loosely you define the relationship of the songs to the theme.

Which leads up to confirmation bias, or the tendency people have to favor information that backs the conclusion they want to make. If you, like me, oppose gun ownership*

*guns and cigarettes are the only two things people make which, when used exactly the way they're intended to be used, are fatal

then you probably remember stories about three-year-olds grabbing guns and killing people, and don't pay much attention to the fact that thousands of hunters roam the woods every year shooting deer and very few fatalities occur**

**assuming, of course, that you don't count the deer.


Confirmation bias can be as dangerous as synchronicity, depending on who you're talking to; I assume that any chest pains I suffer are related to my heart and were caused by the bee-stings initially, and that there's some fundamental change that occurred when those bees went all bee-y on me and I heroically saved Mr F and Mr Bunches' lives***

***It was heroic, and neither of them got stung.


But if that's a false belief -- if that's me imposing order and meaning on my life by grouping random events by meaning -- then what of the doctors, who look at my medical history and decide that chest pains=heart attack? They want to be sure that I'm not having another heart attack, thereby exposing them to ridicule on my blog and worse*4

*4 I am a lawyer, after all. I'll sue you at the drop of a hat and not think twice about it.

And I got started on all this simply by seeing a face in the curtains, which is where the headline for this post comes from: Having been told once that people see faces in almost everything, I can't stop seeing faces, and in fact, I've made a game of it, almost, because (a) I'm that kind of person and (b) what else are you supposed to do when you're working/driving/supposed to be in a meeting? Play Angry Birds? I don't think so. I'm tired of that game.

And you probably won't be able to stop. Look around where you're sitting right now. I bet you can find 10 different faces without even trying.

The point of this post is to mention cool things I never learned in school, and pareidola and the rest of these things are all very cool things that I never learned in school and probably nobody ever learned in school, which seems kind of wrong to me; schools are supposed to be teaching students how to think after all, aren't they? They should be; schools teaching people when the Civil War started isn't really productive anymore. We can all look that up. But schools teaching people how to think is productive, and teaching people now just how to think but how we actually think also seems important to me...

...if only to let us know why there's an 80's Nagel painting in that curtain on the ER, and why the doctors are going to keep telling us that we're not having a heart attack as we wonder about the Nagel painting.

2 comments:

Rogue Mutt said...

Why is it emergency rooms always suck so much? The last one I went to one they basically said I had a tummy ache. It turned out I had this enormous gall stone that required removed my gall bladder. If they'd actually done some real tests they probably could have found it. I guess it's probably that they just want to get you in and out as fast as possible so if you don't have something obvious like a gunshot wound they'll just go with the simplest explanation and send you on your way, hoping that if you do have another problem someone else will deal with it. Which is so not what happened on "ER" all those years.

Anyway, I usually look for shapes in the bathroom floor tiles and wallpaper, because what else are you going to do when you're taking a dump--play Angry Birds?

Michael Offutt said...

The Nagel painting you posted above reminded me of a cartoon done by MTV called Aeon Flux.

I'd never heard of this phenomenon of picking faces from things but it certainly explains why people see Jesus and the Virgin Mary in odd places like toast and chocolate.