Delusion

The mysteries of the human mind have always had a certain primal allure for me. Over the past few years several engagingly written books on the subject have appeared in book stores, and I diligently devoured as many of those as I could lay my hands on. Some useful information emerged from my reading. For instance, there were practical suggestions on decision making, such as when it is best to rely on the rational brain, and in what situations one may be better served by deferring to the instinctive emotional brain. Those suggestions have helped me greatly. Buying toothpaste and soap is a simpler affair these days, as I no longer agonize about which brand to buy. I now allow Murali to make those decisions for me.

I also learnt something else about the human brain that totally messed me up.  It appears that we have a built-in psychological immune system, analogous to the biological immune system, which protects us from psychological distress. And, more often than not, our brain shamelessly resorts to delusion to keep us happy. What is eventually presented to us, neuroscientists suggest, is a highly rose-tinted version of reality. Direct exposure to the cold hard truth about ourselves, it seems, is a recipe for insanity. Or, to put it simply, we most likely have highly inflated opinions of ourselves.

“All truth,” said Arthur Schopenhauer, “passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” My own reaction to this crafty aspect of the human mind followed a similar three-stage trajectory – denial, reluctant acceptance and finally, embrace.

I consider myself to be intelligent, articulate and funny. The intelligent part was easy to confirm. There are several websites on the internet that offer IQ tests. I tried them all, one after another, until I found one that convinced me that I had an IQ close to that of Einstein’s. That I am articulate is a well acknowledged fact. The hard part however, was reconciling myself with my self-professed funniness. I turned to Murali. “Am I funny?”, I asked him directly. He laughed and said, “You are a geek”. That is ridiculous, I thought. Besides, what sort of an answer is that to my question, is geek the opposite of funny? I am no geek.

But what Murali said seemed to ring true with my subconscious mind. I do love Star trek and Isaac Asimov. My favorite magazine is Technology Review. My heroes are Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil. I do believe that the singularity is near. I am excited about the availability of the first commercial light-field camera. I find the quote, “A stitch in time would have confused Einstein”, attributed to an anonymous contributor, to be hilarious. Oh, God, I am a geek. My friends in high school always told me I was different, and I thought it was a complement! I went back to Murali a week later and asked him if he really thought I was a geek. I think he sensed that I was a little disturbed, and this time, he said more gently, “You are just differently abled”. He hadn’t lost that sensitivity he was so famous for while he was courting me, which seems to have become dormant since our marriage. But this time, I wasn’t consoled.

Slowly, I also realized that I wasn’t too much of a charmer either. I remember telling one of my colleagues in graduate school that I found awkward pauses in conversation really funny. They made me laugh. What that meant, I realize now, is that my laughs were always poorly timed. They only intensified the awkwardness. This realization, by all counts, should have been devastating. However, it did not feel like such a big deal. It seems that my psychological immune system had kicked in. The Gaussian ‘bell’ curve came to my rescue. I imagined that being a geek put me on the tail end of the curve, outside of two-, or maybe three standard deviations from the mean. It really meant that I was unique and special, not average.

But then, I did have to do something about my lack of social skills. So, from then on I decided to learn from my friends and acquaintances. I closely observed the people I interacted with everyday, trying to understand what made some smoother operators than others. One good friend from high school knew how to connect with people of all ages, right from newborns to octogenarians. I tried to understand her technique. Her conversation usually involved complaints about some aspect of her life, but they were lively accounts that had a disarming charm. Another friend, a true socialite, was always impeccably dressed and perpetually armed with a charismatic smile. She was also a natural at multitasking. She had her eyes everywhere and knew how to keep a million people happy at the same time. And, comfortingly, there was a vast majority that resembled me from my past. They loved the sound of their own voices, convinced that what they had to say was all important.

The conscious switch that I had made from being a talker to the observer, slowly transformed my social equation. In time, I had developed the reputation of being a good listener. No, seriously, people often tell me as much. Although, it occurred to me that they may have said so in a desperate attempt to make small talk with me; hard pressed to find common ground for conversation with a geek. I, however, am an eternal optimist and chose to focus on the positives. Now, wasn’t being a good listener very high up on the list of leadership skills? It is a reputation I can live with. So that is where I am these days, comfortably perched at the intersection of geek and good listener. All is well in my universe again.

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5 responses to “Delusion

  1. ShanthaD

    Good one Chinni! Btw, geeks are awesome. I think they are perceived as having poor social skills because the stuff they talk about and the way they view the world is more evolved than the one we currently live in. We need more geeks. Glad you are embracing your geekiness 🙂

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  2. Loved this post Chinni! “comfortably perched at the intersection of geekness and good listener” – nice! 🙂 BTW, in terms of smooth social operators, if you observe (and learn from) Murali, won’t it be enough? 🙂

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