Saturday, April 27, 2013

Room 237: Patternicity Run Amok

I just finished watching "Room 237," a documentary deconstructing the Stanley Kubrick film, "The Shining." It is a thorough and detailed exposition of the various theories about the "actual" meaning of the film that have drifted around the internet for a number of years now. These theories range from the movie being an oblique statement about the genocide of the Native Americans, to an allegory about the human capacity to forget atrocities committed in the past, to--I kid you not--Stanley Kubrick's subtle confession to having been the filmmaker hired by the government to fake the moon landing.

The documentary is highly entertaining and--as my twitter friends in the UK would say--a load of utter bollocks. Even still, it's worth watching.


In fact, I highly recommend it, and not simply for the entertainment value of listening to these very thoughtful, very passionate people detail their intricate theories about the film. It is also fascinating as a case study of that element, buried deep in our mammalian brain, that compels us to seek out patterns in randomness, and experience comfort and satisfaction in their discovery--even if the discovered patterns are false ones.

We are particularly aware of faces.
Author and researcher Michael Shermer coined the term "patternicity" to describe this tendency. Patternicity is an outgrowth of our simian evolution, an artifact in the genetic code passed down to us by our appropriately wary ancestors. To use Shermer's example, pretend you are an early hominid stalking the prehistoric African veldt in search of your next meal, or cruising for a mate, or trying to kill a few million years until "Seinfeld" finally premieres, when you hear a rustling sound from behind you. You whirl about, catching a glimpse of movement in the nearby boughs. Is it just the wind, harmlessly tussling the landscape? Or is it a hidden predator trying to catch you unawares?
The patterns we see often depend on what's on our mind...
Yep, you're screwed.
It should go without saying, given the rugged, wild, unpredictable nature of the time and the surroundings, that the latter assumption is the safer one. After all, if you bolt and it was just the wind, what have you lost? You simply got a little impromptu exercise. If, however, you assume it is the wind and you are wrong, the consequences of this misjudgment could be very tragic for you. This is an awareness and an instinct that served our ancestors very well, as your presence attests. However, like many traits--physical, emotional, psychological--that aided our survival and propagation for millennia, this tool of our psyche often works at cross purposes in a modern context.

Blessed are the meek, for they are gullible.
Now, as then, our patternicity drives us relentlessly to probe the world around us for patterns, constantly grasping to paint a coherent picture of what our senses take in. It helps in scientific research, accident reconstruction, relationships, understanding "LOST," and innumerable other ways. But it can also be a hindrance. Our minds sometimes go to extreme, even absurd lengths in service of this task. Witness the many appearances of the Virgin Mary on everything from trees, to buildings, to--no kidding--a grilled cheese sandwich.

Passion of the Toast
Conspiracy theories, of which "Room 237" is essentially a visual catalog in the context of Kubrick's film, are another manifestation of this phenomenon; our brains simply trying too hard to make something from nothing. Randomness does not sit well with us. Randomness is neither comforting nor satisfying. This is particularly true in relation to tragic, traumatic events, like the assassination of JFK or the terror attacks of 9/11. To many, it is more comforting to believe that these happenings are the handiwork of a vast, organized collusion of shadowy figures in positions of influence rather than a confluence of random or disorganized elements.

It cannot be mere happenstance that the presidential motorcade planned a route
through Dallas that took it past the building where Lee Harvey Oswald had recently gotten a job. A great man like John Kennedy could not have fallen victim to the hasty machinations of a born loser like Oswald merely as a result of chance. No, the CIA planted him there. The terror attacks of 9/11 actually were a conspiracy among the perpetrators, but not a satisfying one. Surely this was a grand plot; a "false flag" operation, diabolically planned and executed.

Former Doctor Wakefield, Quack Emeritus
This kind of thinking is typically harmless, leading mainly to the waste of great swathes of time on the part of the obsessed. Such preoccupations have a dark side, though, and can have genuinely lethal consequences. Take, for example, the scare over the reputed link between vaccinations and autism. Though long debunked, these false concerns linger with us to this day. The criminally negligent and disingenuous perpetrator of this false alarm, Andrew Wakefield, has been thoroughly and indisputably discredited, and eventually was unceremoniously struck off of Britain's register of medical professionals for his shoddy methods and even shoddier ethics. But this, too, is a plot of the establishment. "Big Pharma" and their cohorts in the medical industry have conspired to discredit the heroic whistleblower Wakefield in order to protect their profits.

Fancy a bit of the ol' ultra violence?
"Room 237" is a harmless manifestation of patternicity run amok, and if you have any interest in the mechanism of belief--or you just enjoy listening to people pull some imaginative fiction out of their hiney holes, I recommend giving it a go. Stanley Kubrick was a cinematic genius, and he did pack his films with themes and metaphor. Kubrick's films, like the man himself, were brilliant and complicated. Art is not just about the intent of its creator, but about the effect it has on us. It's not just about what the artist was trying to say, but what the art makes us say to--and about--ourselves. Our interpretation is part of the artistic process, even if that interpretation is off the intellectual deep end. It is in this context that "Room 237" belongs. "Viddy" it, me droogies, in the parlance of Kubrick's deliciously sadistic villain, Alex. Just do me a favor, and take it all in with a very large grain of salt. Sometimes, a waterfall of blood from an elevator is just a really cool horror film effect.


Related recommendations:

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths - Michael Shermer

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time - Michael Shermer