Déjà Vu, Idle Chatter and Barking Dogs

16 03 2010

No one gets déjà vu worse than I do.  Well, no one I know does, at least.  The phenomenon is considered to be the feeling that one is experiencing something that has already happened.  What it really amounts to is a vague sense of repetition.  Well, for most it is just a vague sense of repetition, but oftentimes I find that the situation goes well beyond that.  I used to think it a silly social custom for people to have repeat conversations.  When you run out of things to talk about, then you go back over the old subjects and discuss them again as though they had not been discussed before.  A few years ago, though, I noticed some coworkers having a repeat conversation for at least the third time, and they were repeating themselves almost verbatim.  They could have been reading from a script, they were following their previous conversation so closely.  What was more amazing to me was that one conversationalist was reacting to the other’s words with astonishment, the same as before.  Now, generally, when someone tells me something that I find intriguing, I think I’m pretty likely to remember it.  At the very least, it shouldn’t surprise me when I hear it again…I think.

But that’s the real problem.  If other people were repeating their own conversation exactly, then how many times did I hear it before I first recognized that they were repeating themselves?  I might experience this redundancy unawares.  I only know that others experience it one or two more times than I do before coming to the sense that they’ve had this or that conversation before.  They could have repeated it twenty times, with me being aware only of the nineteenth and twentieth times, where they only remember the twentieth.

The next time they had that conversation, and they did, in fact, have that exact same conversation later, I stopped them and finished the conversation for them.  I begged them to please remember doing this before.  They said that they may have sort of remembered it.  At least they didn’t do it again.

That was not an isolated incident, though it may have been the worst.  I told my wife about it, and she thought it was funny.  A few weeks later, I told her about it again, and she reacted exactly the same way.  So long as I followed my part of the script, she followed hers.  I asked her if she realized we were repeating ourselves, and she got mad at me.  She doesn’t like to be tricked.

No need to take it personally, though.  Almost everyone I know seems able to have the same discussion multiple times without being remotely aware of it.  Particularly observant people can discuss a thing twice, where others can have the same chat four or more times.  I prefer to stop counting after four.  Again, though, that is four times more than I repeat myself unawares.  If I do it twice, then the one who seems to repeat himself four times actually does it six times.

The deciding factor seems to lie in the loquaciousness of the individual.  The more chatty a person is, the more prone they are to having the same discussion with the same people over and over again and react exactly the same way each time, as though never having heard it before.  Socially, I am possibly the least chatty person I know.  Hence, each discussion means more to me, and I am more likely to remember it.

I am under the impression that talk is cheap for most people, that the act of having a chat has nothing to do with the exchange of information and ideas.  That is to say that people talk to each other for the purpose of talking.  Previously, I had assumed that people talked for the sake of entertainment, which still may be true, but the act of talking, itself, is both the means and the end in most exchanges.  It’s the reason we say “hello” to people when we see them, even if we had just seen them the previous day.  What does that word even mean?  Most of the way people relate to each other conveys no great meaning, other than to emote.  “Hey, man, how’s it going?” is not a question, when it really comes down to it.  The statement, itself, is just a gesture.

Idle chatter, in many cases, is on par with the barking of dogs.  The point is in the vocalization, not the true meaning of words.  If people don’t take their conversations seriously, then they are not apt to remember them.  All they take away from the event is a sense of their relationship with the other person.

However, the lowest form of conversation, the one that really resembles the barking of dogs in terms of its intelligence, is the use of obscenities.  I don’t mean the use of crass words where more delicate words would suffice.  I mean the use of obscenities in sentences where the literal meaning of the word has no relevance to the subject at hand.  It’s an alternate to the word “duh.”  More often as of late, I find that people are throwing in obscenities in random places in their speech, out of pure habit.  If we replaced those words with the word, “duh,” not a single ounce of meaning would be lost from what they say.  For example, “Hey, duh, where did you get that duh awesome shirt?” to which the other person replies, “I got it from that duh store down on duh D Street…you know…the one with the duh picture of a duh gorgeous babe in the window.”  Generally speaking, in terms of vocalized speech, obscenities tend to be used most by people who have the hardest time thinking of the right words to say.  The bad words have actually come to substitute the nonsense word, duh, in every sense of the way.  But replacing poor language skills with foul language has not only ceased to be counter-culture, but it has actually become fashionable.

The summary meaning of this trend is that communication in our society is becoming dull.  We don’t really mean what we say, and we don’t care enough about what others say to remember it.

The brain acts as an excellent filter of information.  In truth, we would drive ourselves insane if we remembered everything.  Therefore, we have a knack for forgetting trivial stuff, which, in this case, is anything that a friend tells us.  If an event happens once, then the brain determines that it must not be important.  Useful information is always encountered over and over again, like the skill of driving a car, forming words or tying a shoe.  Hence, a conversation might be forgotten until it’s been had a few times.  The catch in all of this is that the brain cannot determine to start remembering these things on the third round if it does not remember that there was a first and second round.  What this means, then, is that people really do remember their conversations, even if they repeat themselves.  What they cannot do is recall those conversations.  It’s in the head, but it’s not coming out.

Two ways exist to promote memory, cognitively.  The first is to think about a thing repeatedly.  The second is to think about it deeply.  In reality, though, because the brain runs in cycles, a deep thought is really just a prolonged one, which is really just a thought that repeats itself over and over for a longer period of time.  Repetition is the primary determinant of whether we will recall the thing later on.  People forget their conversations, because they spend no time pondering them, because they really do not value what was said.

Churches are notorious for having people walk out of the doors and be hopelessly unable to remember anything that was said during the sermon.  Frankly, this is pathetic.  What it means is that they may listen, but they do not ponder.  They hear, but they do not consider.  They believe that they value the theology, but their memories betray them.  We remember the information that we cherish.  Fortunately for the pastor, though, even when the laity cannot recall what was said, the brain does still remember.  With enough sermons and enough reinforcement, a sound theology can be built with time.

Perhaps, if we pay attention, we can remember our lives and relationships, instead of living in a fog and doing everything twice.  Though, I have a feeling that “twice,” is an understatement.

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