Sunday, January 29, 2012

What Are You Thinking? Why I Like To Stare At Pretty Girls

I like to think about thinking. So when I was messing around with a girlfriend, and she asked “what are you thinking?” it really got me thinking. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t thinking anything! There wasn’t one thought it my head. All I was doing was acting, not thinking. How could this be? How could I be involved in something so enjoyable, and not have a single thought in my head?

The issue didn’t stop there, though. I realized that even when I look at attractive girls, there is nothing going on in my head. The idea of “men constantly try to picture women naked” or “men think about having sex with every attractive girl they see” doesn’t seem to apply to me, and I am guessing it doesn’t apply to many other guys either. When I see an attractive girl, all I do is stare. There is no thought process whatsoever, I am just looking. End of story.

Why is this? Why do I want to look at attractive girls? Why is it that when I am looking, nothing is going on in my head? And lastly, why am I so good at spotting attractive girls? I can spot an attractive girl in a large crowd basically instantly. Why? How? In this blog post, I hope to answer that question. Though, keep in mind that this theory is based on complete speculation.

There are many, many processes going on in your head all throughout the day. However, for the most part, you (meaning your conscious self) are completely unaware of these processes. You are only aware of a very few things that your brain feels is important enough to bump up to the conscious you, so that you are aware of it. Things that are often important are things that generally relate to our survival, be it food, novel stimuli, a threat, etc. Your brain directs your attention to it, so that you can take the appropriate action. Many neuroscientists think of attention as being a very big part of consciousness, so whatever your brain calls attention to, you are conscious of.

Besides novel stimuli, threats and food, the male brain is also very interested in finding reproductively fit females. Men have evolved to want to reproduce as much as possible--propagate those genes!! As a result, men are very interested in finding attractive girls (which equates to good genes).

We know why men are interested in finding attractive girls, as it is beneficial to reproduction. First, let’s define “attractive girl.” Men across cultures and decades all agree on a few very basic aspects of what makes a girl attractive. One of those features is the size of her waist in relation to her hips. Very young girls have a high hip to waist ratio, as do older women. However, girls who are reproductively fit will have a low hip to waist ratio (the wider hips are necessary for child birth, so they communicate to men that a girl is the right age where she is able to have babies). Studies have been done on this, and it turns out that 10:7 hip to waist ratio is found the most attractive. So in terms of what men are “on the lookout” for, are women who have a 10:7 hip to waist ratio.

Now, onto the question of why guys are so good at spotting these curvy girls! We know that one of the things men's brains are doing, is constantly scanning the visual plane, looking for anything that could be worth directing the conscious mind’s attention toward. And seeing how important it is to reproduce, the brain would also be scanning for reproductively fit females. I imagine that the system that is scanning for them would be very finely tuned to finding attractive girls and bringing them to the attention of the rest of the brain. It is most likely that this system is actually overly sensitive, since it would be beneficial to have a false positive (thinking you see an attractive girl, and being wrong) rather than missing attractive girls because you didn’t see them.

So in terms of why men are so good at spotting attractive girls, it is because our brain has an overly sensitive system which scans the visual plane, looking for anything that fits a 10:7 ratio curve.

That is one question down, so what about why there are no thoughts going on in my head when I have spotted one of these lovely ladies? Well, all the system in question is doing is bringing your attention to the girl—hoping other systems will take over, and you will get the guts to go talk to her or something. But seeing as reproducing is so important—nay, the most important thing an organism can do, the system exerts a lot of energy to make sure you are noticing this girl, so you don’t miss her.

Ultimately, when I am just starring, not thinking of anything, it's because my “find pretty girls” system is going crazy, and it is putting all my attention on the girl. And seeing as that is all that that system does, my brain won't be coming up with any other thoughts.

That’s all I got.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Gay Gay is Gay: Political Correctness and the Evolution of Words

Language is an amazing thing. There are many reasons that it is so amazing, but one of the more obvious reasons is because of how fluid it is. Words come into existence (email), go out of existence (affuage1), change in meaning (“awful” used to mean amazing, or “full of awe”) and can even morph to fit other grammatical categories (google → googled, from noun to verb). And as every high school English student knows, it's amazing how much languages can change over a few hundred years (Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote → When April with his showers sweet with fruit)!

Now, the interesting thing with the examples I just listed is that their changes came about completely naturally. No one ever said “okay, let’s use the word ‘awful’ in a different way!” Much like biological evolution, linguistic evolution is a slow, unguided process. Here are a few other examples of words whose meanings have changed over time...

Nice - This comes from the Latin “not to know.” Originally a “nice” person was someone who was ignorant or unaware.
Artificial - This originally meant “full of artistic or technical skill.”
Manufacture - From the Latin meaning “to make by hand” this originally signified things that were created by craftsmen.
Bad - This once meant “a womanish-man” or "hermaphrodite."

However, when you do start to notice a change in word meaning, it can be quite annoying. Over the past few years, people have increasingly started to use the word “literally” to mean the exact opposite. For example, “I literally died of embarrassment.” And while it is annoying to hear people use the word that way, it is also fascinating, since we are witnessing a word slowing changing, right before our eyes.

However, there are also many examples of words whose meanings have been reappropriated by a group, in hopes of reclaiming it, and giving the word a different spin. This isn’t as successful as people tend to think, simply because we don’t really hear about words that haven’t successfully been reappropriated. However, some words have been embraced, and given a positive spin by the group they reference, such as: Geek, Guido, Jesus-Freak, Mormon, Nerd, Nigga and Redneck. Of course, people who don’t consider themselves as belonging to one of those groups probably wouldn’t care to be called one of those things2.

That brings me to my main point, which is about the word “gay.” As most people know, it used to mean “full of joy, merry, light-hearted, carefree.” Indeed, this was the main meaning from the late 1300's up until the mid 1900's3. However, in the 1400's, it also took on a meaning of immortality. By the 1600's, it had somewhat of a meaning of promiscuity, as brothels were referred to as “gay houses”, prostitutes were “gay women”, and womanizers were “gay men.” In the early 1800's, it meant “carefree” and then started to take on the meaning of “homosexual” in the 1940s. Finally, in the 1970’s, the homosexual community adopted it, and successfully reappropriated it.

The word “gay” really is a phenomenal example of the evolution of language, and just how diverse word definitions can be over time. However, it is also ironic that since a minority group has adopted it, there now exists a social pressure that tells us that we can’t let the meaning change again.

Political correctness tells us that using the word gay to mean “stupid” or “lame” is inappropriate, mean, offensive, insensitive, etc., since it is equating something bad with homosexuals. The problem here is that this is just another example of language evolving. Just as it has done many times in the past, the word is taking on a new meaning once again. It seems deeply hypocritical for someone to say “Yes, the word ‘gay’ has meant many things in the past, and it was recently adopted to mean homosexual. However, if the word changes again, and means something bad—that’s wrong.” Sorry, but you can’t change a word, and then get upset when it changes again, especially when the change is completely organic. One might argue, “Well, it’s not fair to take a word that describes an aspect of a person, and then let it mean something bad.” Well, this happens all the time, and there are numerous examples of words that we use which were originally used to describe something about a person, but now are meant as something negative.

For example, the words “moron”, “imbecile” and “idiot” were originally terms used by medical professionals to refer to different low IQ levels in adults. An idiot was described as an adult who was so mentally incapacitated that they were incapable of ordinary reasoning. An imbecile was an adult with the mental capacity of a 6-9 year old, and a moron was an adult with the mental capacity of an 8-12 year old.

Because of this, should we throw a hissy fit and boycott Napoleon Dynamite4, simply because the filmmakers are being insensitive to adults with a mental capacity of a newborn child? No, that would be retarded5. Likewise, should we get upset when someone uses the word gay to refer to something stupid? Only, it seems, if we want to be hypocrites.

As I observe political correctness in action, it seems that the majority of it is centered around a quibble over semantics, as well as the belief that there is some deep atrocity being committed if someone is offended by something. Being offended is part of life, and no one has the right to constrict how someone speaks, simply because they are offended by it. As an atheist, I am part of the second least liked group of people in America (Scientologists are first6), and I see/hear things that potentially offend me all of the time. Should I be offended if I sneeze and someone says “God bless you”? No. I realize that it is mostly just a figure of speech, and I don’t give it a second thought. And even if it did bother me, should I really expect everyone I come into contact with to adopt a language change so as not to offend me? Of course not. To make a fuss about it would only embarrass myself and make me look hypersensitive and entitled.

Likewise, some people feel offended if they are not addressed in the proper pronoun. “Yes, my sex is male, but I identify as a woman, so please refer to me as in the gender neutral term ‘ze’”7, and feel this should be an option on legal forms and whatnot. This is simply absurd. It would be akin to me saying “don’t call me an atheist, call me a methodological naturalist” and insisting that any form that asks for your religious view have this option (as well as “strong atheist”, “weak atheist” “agnostic-atheist”, etc).

And just so people don’t think I am picking on homosexuals or liberals, conservative Christians have the same problem. Whenever a billboard goes up promoting a positive image of atheism, there is a huge uproar of people saying “I am offended by that! I don’t want to see it when I drive to work every morning”, and demand that it be removed.

The best way to deal with this is not to try and control how people use a word, (as this sort of thing tends to have the opposite effect8) but to just realize that language isn’t something you can control, and trying to manufacture linguistic changes is almost always an exercise in futility. Remember, if someone offends you, that is not a crime, and if a word offends you, it’s in your best interest to get over it. Being offended is just part of living with people who have different opinions. Deal with it.

I assume everyone will understand that the title of this blog post is a point of showing how many different meanings the word "gay" has assumed over the years. How anyone chooses to interpret its meaning is up to them.
1. It meant “the right to cut wood in a forest for a family fire," but stopped being used in the mid 1800’s.
2. This raises the question, have these words successfully been reappropriated if they are only viewed positively by the group they refer to?
3. While the origin of gay is disputed, it may originate from the 12th century, in which it meant “beautiful and well dressed.”
5. See what I did there, eh!?
6. However, it seems to depend on the options that the survey taker is given. A survey done in 2006 found that atheists are the least trusted group out of all minority groups, including immigrants, gays and lesbians, conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims.
7. There are a number of different “gender neutral pronouns” that have been introduced over the years by different groups. These terms include Ze, Co, Phe, Hy, Ot, as well as others. As you can tell by the list, none have succeeded in making a dent in popular culture. Though, trying to introduce any sort of manufactured language generally fails completely.
8. Ironic Process Theory states that trying to suppress certain thoughts just makes them more persistent!