Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Party In Your Head

"I was talking to Fred the other day, and he said everyone in his family has a cold."

"Who is Fred?"

"Oh, he's a guy I chat with on the web."

Some people seem to have trouble remembering what the person they are talking to knows and what he doesn't. Is there a name for this "syndrome"? Has anyone researched it?

Everyone does this at times, but with some people it's constant. It's as if, in their minds, everyone they know is all at one big party together. They forget that Fred and Mary are from totally different parts of their life and have never met each other. And I've noticed that when you bring this up, they don't seem fazed. I would expect them to say, "Oh, how STUPID of me! Of course you don't know him." But they just casually explain who Fred is and then move on.

I don't know if this is related, but I also know people who send emails like "Can you send it to me?"

I respond with "Send what to you?"

Then they respond with something like, "The red one."

Still confused, I say, "The red what?"

They say, "You know, the red one -- not the green one."

I say, "Red or green WHAT?!?"

And finally they say, "The book with the red cover that I loaned you last year."

Why didn't they say this in the first place? If they loaned it to me last year, how is it reasonable to assume I'd still be holding an image of it in my mind that could easily be attached to a pronoun?

I am NOT saying people like this are stupid. In fact, I know many smart people who do this sort of thing. But since I am the exact opposite, I don't understand it. I'm SO much the opposite, that I tend to go overboard the other way: "Could you please return that Stephen King book to me that I loaned you in April, last year? It's called 'Carrie' and it has a red cover with blue lettering. I think I saw it on the third shelf from the left when I was last over at your house. You know, your house in New Jersey. That's in the United States of America on planet Earth -- the third planet that orbits Sol, a star in the Milky Way Galaxy..."

Okay, I'm not that bad, but you get my point. Why am I that way? Why are other people extremely the other way? I know that when I think of a person, it's like they are connected to tags. I think of Bill, and instantly the tags "California" and "junior high school" come into my mind. I don't have to think about it. The tags enter my mind the same time Bill enters my mind. So if I'm talking to Charles, a guy I met in Ohio when I was in college, I will instantly know that he doesn't know Bill.This conclusion,which seems obvious, is actually quite remarkable.

We hold in our brains not only Person A and Person B (and all sorts of info about their jobs, families, etc.), but also the meta-information that Person A does-not-know Person B. This fact is not immediately connected to either person. When we think of Person B by himself, we don't think, "He doesn't know Person A." We only have this rather complex thought when we think of A and B at the same time. Yet we are able to generate this thought in a fraction of a second.

It seems very unlikely that we store thousands of does-not-know connections for every person we know. My guess is that we store facts about person A (works-with-me, is-from-Denmark, has-a-cat) and other facts about person B (goes-to-my-gym, is-attractive). When we think of both of them at the same time, out minds must run through all of the facts and see if any of them are the same for both A and B.

Clearly, not everyone's mind works this way, which is why I came up with that (wrong? dumb?) idea of some people's minds being like a big party at which everyone they ever met is a guest. That's actually a sort of attractive idea. My mindset stops my thinking from being fluid. It's possible to come up with really interesting ideas if everything in your brain is allowed to jumble together.

Discussing this with people, some of the "Fred" folks said they didn't get why it was so important to me to know who Fred is. Clearly, he's not the main point of whatever they're saying. So why can't I just assume he's someone they know and then pay attention to their main point.

Fred is important (to me) because my mind hates mysteries. And mysteries -- even mundane ones -- get assigned higher priority than other info. So I have trouble following the main point of what you're saying, because I'm trying to figure out who Fred is. I'm not 100% sure he's just some guy you know. Because you referred to him as if I knew who he was, I realize he might be a common friend. So I'm going through my mental rolodex, trying to figure out who his is.

My guess is that everyone does this -- maybe with less mundane stuff. Supposed I told you, "I had a terrible day at work because my boss made me hounoun for three hours. So I came home, drank some flifftex and watched a couple of hours of Gnant. Then I felt better." Clearly, the gist of what I'm saying is that my boss abused me and made me feel bad, so I came home and pampered myself. But can you really pay attention to that? Aren't you wondering what all those weird words mean?

Different people have different thresholds for mystery. Some people (me) need to know the answer to everything (or they have trouble concentrating); others only need some mysteries solved. Some probably don't care about mysteries at all -- as-long-as they aren't immediately important to the topic being discussed.

Getting back to the "Fred" people, what is going on in their minds? Do they realize that they are leaving out details? Do they figure that these details are unimportant and not worth the effort of speech? Or do they forget that I don't know who they are talking about?

1 comment:

EDgAr H. said...

You know ! We are the only two people with "Jonathan Ames" in our favorite books profile ! Makes you think!!! =D

Nice and very interesting blog you got there !

That is all !