My kindergarden daughter is improving her reading abilities in leaps and bounds. One of the interesting things that she started doing on her own is to read a sentence backwards. She can read it perfectly well forwards, but she reads backwards on occasion more to really get a good look at the words than anything else. I’m not sure why she started that, but I told her it was a great idea. (She might have picked up on the quirk I have of reading perfectly fine upside down or sideways when I’m holding a book so that the kids can see it, even if it’s off kilter for me.)
In high school, my art teacher had us take an illustration of a human, flip it upside down, and replicate it as faithfully as we could. This was her way to train us to draw what we saw, not what we thought we saw. Flipping the source short-circuited our tendency to just draw what we thought we needed to draw. The shapes were unfamiliar enough (though familiar, which made for a curious mental perception loop) that we resorted to drawing shapes and hoping we got them perfect enough that they would fit together correctly when we turned them right side up.
Y’see, whether in art or in reading, we tend to think ahead a little bit and anticipate what we’re going to be doing next… and sometimes, we anticipate incorrectly. We know that a human eye looks like this, our own mental visual shorthand for what an eye should look like (it’s worth noting that everyone has a different mental image). We’ve seen so many of them over the years that we just assume that we know exactly what we’re doing. And yet, everyone’s eyes are different. Everyone’s features are a little quirky. The vast majority of people don’t even have a perfectly symmetrical face, but since we know that human faces are symmetrical for the most part, we tend to miss the subtler details of the individual. This is true when it comes to race or age as well; if we know that a fellow with dark skin has thicker lips and a broader forehead, or a Middle Easterner has an aquiline nose, or an older Asian lady has hooded eyes, we may well ignore what we actually see. Caricatures play strongly to the cliches, largely because that’s what people expect… even if it’s not accurate for the subject at hand.
When someone reads “Rudolph the Red…” they almost reflexively put in “Nosed Reindeer”, no matter what is actually on the page. When we read “Democrat” or “Republican”, “liberal” or “conservative”, “religious” or “atheist”, “Christian” or “Muslim”, “male” or “female”, our learned mental patterns fill in the gaps and anticipate what comes next. We know that those (x) are evil corporatist pigs, or that those protesters are unwashed hippies who live in their divorced mum’s basement. We know that those religious guys are hypocrites, or that rich people cheated the system somehow. Our brains shut off once we have the sketchy outline, and we fill in the gaps the way we always know they get filled. It’s obvious, so there’s no reason to actually pay attention. Why swim upstream against the meme when it’s more efficient to go with the flow?
We know something… that ultimately turns out to be untrue. This, not because we are wrong to try to anticipate, which is useful, and not because we are uneducated, for we are all very familiar with the human face and common communication patterns… no, we are wrong because we assume instead of observe, we label instead of listen. We jump ahead to the response instead of reading what’s on the page, we formulate counterarguments and questions instead of listening to what’s being presented.
It’s a survival tactic. It keeps us from thinking too much, from wasting time. Assumptions and prejudice help us function in the absence of perfect knowledge and incomplete comprehension and the lack of will or time.
And yet, sometimes… if we miss what is actually in front of us, we make mistakes.
Authors, artists and game designers tend to take advantage of this, and some consumers love the “twist” to stories and art as well. Humans are very good with patterns, and creative sorts love to tweak those expectations. Less innocuously, so do media moguls and politicians. If there are no details presented, or if the patterns might suggest something that doesn’t quite represent reality, well, we’ll just leave that up to the individual, hm? Certainly the audience can make up their own minds, right?
Allusions, aspersions, assumptions… very useful tools, in the right hands. Stage magic is all about tricking the natural anticipation and pattern recognition systems of the audience, even if they have to establish a pattern that they then subvert, rather than relying on an existing framework of assumptions. It’s the old shell game philosophy; establish a pattern, add a little razzle dazzle and sleight of hand, and the mark’s own brain does the bulk of the trickery for you. Classic Inception-style mental Judo.
So it’s interesting to me that in a world that sometimes seems upside down and backwards, the best solution can often be to look at it upside down and backwards. Maybe you had it right the first time after all, but taking the time to really look at what you see, really listen to what you hear, and really comprehend what you read, well… that can make a world of difference. Sometimes we have to look beyond the things we know into the things we really should be learning about.