I remember quite clearly, when I was 10 or so, a television commercial for Tylenol. The message went something like this:
“Extra Strength Tylenol has more pain-relieving medicine than Regular Strength Bayer Aspirin.”
I was only 10 years old. I shouldn’t have even been paying attention to the commercials. I should have been playing with my Rubik’s cube while I waited for Magnum, P.I. to come back on. But that commercial pissed me off.
How can they think people would be that stupid? I wondered. Any human being with half a brain isn’t going to be fooled by a statement so clearly misleading.
It turns out people are not only susceptible to misleading marketing, they seem to be drawn to it. Unsubstantiated superlatives appeal to our inner nature. But what nature is that, exactly?
Or consider a study done recently on human adaptive behavior, where groups of people were placed in a room and given a special thermostat to regulate the temperature of the room. The thermostat was set up in such a way that it was not immediately obvious how to regulate the temperature. Most groups did not set up a test to try different methods and use logic to arrive at the correct method. Instead they began to develop almost superstitious beliefs about the thermostat, like if they held it in a certain hand it worked better than another hand. Or if they tapped it three times it would set off a special chip inside that would correctly regulate the temperature.
There are people in this world who want to know how things really work, and they have developed logical ways to arrive at good answers. Many more people, however, just want to feel their way through life. Why is that?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by people that I think too much, analyze too much, that I am too literal. I’ve always been this way. In school I was excellent at math because the methods to arrive at the correct answer were clear. I also took advanced English and composition classes, and I was good at that, too, but when it came to interpreting literature I was not as good, because the answers weren’t discrete. The answer was smeared across a range. The truth could change depending on your position, and this did not come naturally to me.
So, of course, instead of becoming an engineer I decided to be a writer. What? What sense does that make? Well, I always loved to read and was naturally good at composition, and doing math all day sounded really boring to me. But even though I’ve had a little success, I’ve struggled to create great characters because I seem to be missing some understanding of how to render the “feel” part of life.
It’s not that I don’t have emotions. I do have them. I feel them. I often have to look away from people
during sad movies because they make me get all, you know, teary and whatever. But that looking away doesn’t just happen in the movies. I control my emotions in real life as well. I don’t know why. They just seem to add unnecessary complexity to a situation. You ever had a moody boss? An angry parent? Wouldn’t you rather have had rationality in those situations?
When I was single I used to go to bars with a friend of mine who had moved here from Austria. This guy was really literal…I’m talking Vulcan literal. We would have these long conversations about the inherent absurdity of picking up a girl in a bar. Either one of us could chat up a girl in a normal life situation, where there was some inherent subject to discuss. But in a bar there is no context other than “Hi, I’m going to try to pick you up.” We knew the idea was to make small talk, but that was the problem. Neither one of us cared to make small talk. If you didn’t have a concrete reason to talk to someone, why would you? Eventually, of course, I would have enough drinks that I finally would talk to a girl, about whatever, nothing, anything. And it was fine. But why did I have to wait for alcohol to kick in before I could disregard my need to be literal?
To me, information is the most valuable commodity there is. It’s the currency we use to interact with
each other, with the world at large. Without information you can’t do anything. All the stimuli that are
processed by your senses are comprised of information. Without information you don’t even know if you exist.
But when is it good idea to have less information?
I play my best golf when I stop thinking about the mechanics of the swing and just feel it.
We can probably all agree that you can’t have good sex when you think too much.
You can’t enjoy a slice of pizza if you’re worried about how many calories are in it.
There isn’t a math equation to describe love.
Does that mean there are situations in life where we willfully suspend our disbelief?
Love exists in our brains, after all, and while a lot of people may not believe it, there will come a time when that electrochemical process can be mapped. Unless you think God is yanking the strings of the universe and routinely breaking the laws of physics, everything we know can be described by a physical process. Which means everything could eventually be known.
I can hear you right now: Well, I don’t want everything to be known. I don’t want love to be understood discretely even if it’s possible. I want there to be room for magic.
But you must agree we want some things to be known. Before we had knowledge of pathogens, people routinely died for reasons that today would seem absurd. So that sort of information is good, right?
We used to believe the sun was drawn across the sky by a guy in a chariot. We used to believe the Earth was at the center of the universe. But when scientists suggested we weren’t at the center of the universe, they were tried for heresy. Heresy!
Even today there are people who reject mature fields of science like evolution and geology because it doesn’t jibe with their religious beliefs.
I suppose this need to occasionally blot out rational thought emerges from the way our brains are wired. In some ways we are like computers, passing and parsing bits of information, but we also incorporate emotions, which current computers do not. Those emotions can completely override normal information processing, like when you have an orgasm, or when your favorite team wins the Super Bowl. In the most literal sense it may seem absurd to rub your private parts against someone else’s, it may seem ridiculous to watch a bunch of strangers on television throw a ball to each other, but no one can deny the euphoria that can be produced by these activities.
Which is one of the most interesting conundrums of being human. You can try to reduce the world to a
discrete, measurable system, but your brain will always rebel against you, because it cannot divorce itself from emotion.
And what would life be like if it could?
Yesterday I bought some Nike golf balls, and the girl at the cash register asked, “Why are these golf balls so expensive?”
Normally, I would have answered her literally, something about the attributes of the golf balls, or just
smiled and said I didn’t know. But instead I said, with a gleam in my eye, “Because I’m so good.”
She got a kick out of that.
Which I suppose is a small but fitting example of what it means to be human.