Books written by Ray Sullivan

Monday, 20 May 2013

Do I Know You?

I've recently read an interesting book called 'You Are Not So Smart' by David McRaney.  I obviously felt my self esteem was ascending too fast when I bought it - another Amazon Kindle Deal of the Day, by the way.  Have you signed up yet?.  David is correct, and his fun to read yet informative book playfully burst plenty of bubbles about how we all make mistakes all the time.

One part of the book discussed the  part of the brain that recognises others.  Basically it is a feature of all brains, not just human, and the size of it dictates how many people we can usefully interact with.  It seems that humans have a particularly well developed capability and consequently we can, on average, cope with about 150 people effectively.  Add more than our limit and we get a bit flaky.  It appears that all those Facebook and Twitter collectors of Friends and Followers are kidding themselves when they announce they have hundreds or even thousands of Friends.  Sure, they may have a lot of names associated with their profile but research apparently shows that no matter how many names and faces we interact with on-line, we don't exceed our personal limit.  The number of people we interact with, including those on FB or Twitter stick with our limit - the rest are all lip service.  Seemingly, before we had administrative constructs to allow larger gatherings, this is thought to be why villages tended to top out at 150 in the past.

My limit, by the way, is probably about ten.  Or maybe I'm just very forgetful, I don't know.  A few individuals are known to have an upper limit of over 200 people they can deal with personally at any given time, but most stick to the average.  This doesn't mean you can't get to know more than 150 people in your life - you probably exceeded that before you got to High School - but once you reach your limit then some tough love decisions are made on the subconscious side of your brain.  When you allow a new person to become part of your life, someone who has probably not featured for some time, is pushed out.  Not totally, but enough to not pop into your thoughts randomly.  I can't be the only person out here finding myself looking at someone I know I've spent days, maybe weeks with in the past and can't even recall their name.

So when you get those Friend requests from people you've met in passing by the water cooler, beware, if they start to feature too strongly in your life, on or off-line, then you may be sacrificing someone from your past.  But heck, if they've been pushed out, you probably didn't spend too much time thinking about them.

It makes me think about a TV demonstration I saw some years ago, rustled up by the BBC to show how poor witnesses actually are in helping the police and the courts.  The BBC invited a load of people to come and watch a TV show being made and let them queue outside Television Centre in London.  While they were queuing a car came sliding around the corner and a shoot out started right under the noses of the people waiting.  Apart from the 2 million others watching on TV they couldn't have had a better view of the action.  Then they were taken inside and had witness statements taken about what they had seen.  Predictably the results of the statements were all over the place.  The numbers involved, who did what and when and, of course, the racial backgrounds were all incorrect or varied enormously.  For example, all of the actors involved were white, but many were identified as being black by the witnesses.

We do this all the time, fill in the gaps and let our beliefs and prejudices drive that process.  I got to wondering after reading the book if the finite number of people we can juggle in our heads had a bearing on the outcome, and on all other real witness situations.  Here was a bunch of men and women, presumably all filled to the upper limits of their faces, presented with a fast moving and heart stopping situation.  Because it was significant they would have had to accept that these new faces needed to be included in their limit, which meant they had to start losing some people, if only temporarily.  Then, drama over, those guys involved in the shoot out became less relevant and perhaps they were being pushed out by new faces - the interviewers, for example - because let's face it, they were taking valuable space.

I don't know the answer to that one, but it gets me thinking even more that maybe social networks are going to run up against problems with the human brain.  OK, we can rack up thousands of Friends on FB and limitless numbers of followers on Twitter, but what happens if we start to interact more dynamically with them?  Right now Facebook is where we tell anyone we might know that we've had a bad day at work and Twitter is where we shout at a load of strangers who are also shouting at us - but luckily nobody is listening.  But if I do start to listen, does that mean I'm going to have to sacrifice my memory of someone I know and care about just to squeeze some random avatar into my brain?

Please let me know what you think of this concept, but please don't ask me to get too involved unless you're ready to pitch Aunt Mabel into oblivion.


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