Wednesday, May 04, 2005


I thought of this when seeing a headline about a drunkard sleeping in a kindergarten bed. Now there isn't (obviously) anything unusual about drunkards, or sleeping drunkards, or beds in kindergarten, or human beings sleeping in kindergarten beds, but the combination of the person (male, intoxicated, asleep) and the place (small bed, kindergarten) was so unusual as to be newsworthy.

My first reaction was the usual and natural one: after all, the word 'drunkard' recalls a person who may be violent, dirty and disorderly, and therefore shouldn't be around children. I imagined all the ensuing brouhaha with accusations of not enough supervision (how did he get in anyway?) and general upset (he might have hurt somebody).

The problem was one of displacement. The person was somewhere he was not supposed to be. There was no scheme ready for the people around him to deal with the situation; it was unexpected. A normal scheme for a sleeping drunkard might take place almost anywhere (bed, roadside, under an upturned rowboat). On the other hand, the scheme for a kindergarten bed allows only for the children who go to that kindergarten to sleep there.

My point is, we humans process reality through stories and schemes. Life is tolerable, because it is to a large extent predictable. You go to work and do certain things, go to get groceries, clean house, read books and so on. If something happens outside the scheme, we react to it and try either to create a new scheme for the situation or force the events to conform to an existing one.

A truth is that our lives consist of events, and the connection between these events is created by our minds. No physical force causes you to go to work in the morning, like gravity causes objects to fall down on earth and the Earth to orbit the Sun. Instead, the memories and thoughts stored in your brain create a scheme for going to work that you follow.

For the purposes of my speculation, it is only important to note that we rely on schemes, that is, we have a good idea of what's supposed to happen in a given situation. The question of displacement is one which causes interesting effects: consider our drunkard.

I posit that in addition to the potential risk of violence and the general ickiness of dirty old men, the situation was disturbing because it did not follow the normal scheme. It required the personnel to resort to another scheme (most likely, calling the police), or perhaps even write a completely new one. The person was displaced.

This displacement is also a frequent source of humour (although not the only one): consider the amount of jokes where a person, who is normally expected to behave in a certain way, is portrayed committing an act , which is normally expected to be committed by a different kind of person. Two incompatible schemes are mixed. For example, a horse in a bar, the bishop and the actress, a small child saying something adult-like, etc.

What's fascinating is that all this happens inside our heads. The displaced element or person is not necessarily doing anything evil or funny, the humour or distress is born of our perception of wrongness. After all, the drunkard was merely sleeping (a peaceful action if anything is), he was not trashing the place. And in the case of jokes, none of the actors are actually present. The physical reality does not - quite - match the one in our mind.

So the next time when something bothers you, think about it. What's wrong with this picture?

Dr. Catharine Keatley: An Introduction to your mind