Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Not What I Imagined

I know there's no good reason for it, but when I talk to someone on the phone repeatedly over time, I usually develop a mental picture of what s/he looks like.

This week I actually met someone I'd been working with for about a year, and per usual, I wasn't even close.

Do you ever do that? Is there some sort of capital-R Reason for it, or is it just a quirk?

Sometimes it happens with writing, too, but it's usually less pronounced. If I read someone repeatedly, over time, I develop a mental picture. The weirdest case of that was during the depths of dissertating, when I actually had a dream in which one of the people I wrote about appeared. Years later, I still remember the dream, because it creeped me out so much.

Several years ago I discussed a project with a professor, and I mentioned an adjunct who was interested in the same thing. She stopped me and said that his name was so evocative that she could immediately picture him: she described a tall, lanky, foreign man. She got the 'man' part right, but completely whiffed on the rest. It stuck with me, though, because it was so random and so wildly off-base, yet she seemed so sure.

I don't think there's any meaningful correlation between voice and appearance, or writing style and appearance, but the habit persists.

(My occasional forays into clairvoyance are about equally successful. A few months ago I had a really vivid dream about receiving a wedding announcement from an old friend. I called her and left a voicemail saying that I had that dream, and I wanted to see if I had psychic abilities or if I just ate something bad. About an hour later the phone rang, and before I could even get "hello" out, I heard "YOU ATE SOMETHING BAD." Oops.)

Is there some kind of explanation for the mental-picture habit? It doesn't seem terribly functional, and it's hugely inaccurate, but it keeps happening.

For those who have the same weird habit I do, what was your most memorable mistake?

I have had people do double-takes upon meeting me, so I think it's a common phenomenon. I am equally inaccurate with mental pictures, but I don't normally embarrass myself with it. However...

I was involved with a community of researchers in a hobby I used to do, and one particularly well-respected member lived 3,000 miles away. When I was first introduced to him, after five years of correspondence, I was quite startled to find out that he was 5' 2" and looked like the Little Dutch Boy with glasses. So help me, the first words that popped out of my mouth were "You're much taller in your letters". Dang, that was smooth. (He took it well.)
I think it's the nature of our game-enjoying, curiosity-filled simian brain that we just want to fill in missing blanks all the time.

And I think the entire reason science is structured the way it is is that we're very ingenious about finding ways of filling in blanks to create compelling stories; but left to our own devices, most of us are pretty uninterested in doing any quality control on those filled-in bits beyond that.
There's a funny Kids in the Hall sketch in which Dave Foley swears he can draw someone's portrait based only on the voice. And then he produces a sort of stick-figure drawing. And then the person turns out to look like that.
When I worked at a newspaper that was published offsite, several of us had a bet on what our contact at the publishing plant looked like, who we talked to on the phone daily and who shepherded our paper through the press process, but whom none of us had ever met. We were talking one day about what we thought he looked like based on our phone conversations with him and we were interested in how different we all thought he must look. So we made a bet and then we went to have brunch with him (after the paper was printed ... he was still up, we were just up).

I won!
I was on a search committee that convinced itself that because a candidate did research on African Americans she must be African American...the non-African American woman who showed up for the interview was a big surprise!
I don't have any particularly memorable moments, but I do have a long habit of picturing people or places a particular way, only to find that they look totally different.

...actually, I do get into the habit of seeing people like my professors or coworkers in particular places, and it's weird to see them somewhere else. Once I ran into my math professor at my local library and it took me a minute to recognize her. It was also funny when she popped up at my brother's piano recital (her daughter shared the same teacher, it turned out). I'm suspecting that my having a hard time recognize her outside of school (and other similar cases with other people) has to do with how I visualize people.
Imagine playing this game in a state where women marry interracially and then change their names. My friend went from Chang to Vargas. Suffice it to say, she gets a lot of second looks from people as they try to figure out what the heck is going on. She also makes delicious Kim Chee Tamales.
When I was a young graduate student (not so young for real, but...), I was following a protocol attributed to a scientist with a decidedly English name. I imagined this person as a small man with reddish hair and a mustache. Then at a meeting, while walking toward the bathroom, I absent-mindedly read the badge worn by an astonishingly beautiful woman, realized it was the distinguished scientist, and promptly walked into the wrong bathroom. She later served as a mentor, not only to myself but my advisors.
All have shared nice experience here but I don't have anything to share.

So, I would like to say thanks to every one for sharing this experience !


college degree
I have been startled by the appearance of people with whom I've corresponded or spoken. The time that sticks with me, though, is when I introduced myself to someone at a conference whom I'd spoken to on numerous occasions. I said "Hi, I'm Vicki" and she said "No, you're not."
Sounds and phonemes trigger emotions, even before we interpret them as words. Dickens made big bucks off of it with his wonderful names, and Rowling did followed in his footsteps. In the real world, the name rarely matches the image as the image is conjured from sounds and associations.
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