Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When Your Hear a New Name or Concept, Do You Often Hear It More than Once?

Have you ever had the experience that you hear of a new person, or a new word or concept for the first time - and then you hear it again in a relatively short period? I'm not talking about a concept or celebrity that is genuinely new, or even obviously enjoying a revival, but rather a concept that appears not be making the rounds with any greater frequency and just happens to be new to you. This has happened to me frequently in my life, though of course I can never remember any examples. It seems trivial, but for the meme-minded, it fcries out for an explanation. So when it happened to me again today, I said to myself: I have to document this on my blog.

And here's the concept that I was exposed to twice. Last night I watched Confederate States of America, a really clever alternative history movie that deserves to be better-known. It's produced as if you're watching a British documentary from a parallel universe about the Confederate nation that rose from the ashes of the American Civil War, complete with commercial breaks that feature ads for slave-tracking collars. Granted, sometimes the tone is tongue-in-cheek, but overall it's very well-done, and highly recommended.

In the film, a real nineteenth-century physician, Samuel Cartwright, is cited for his "discovery" of drapetomania, a mental disorder exhibited by slaves running away from their masters. Yes, to us it sounds like these escapees were of perfectly sound mind, but the point of studying the topic is that the Cartwrights of the world were and are committing a grave injustice to science and to humanity by giving veneers of scientific respectability to depraved institutions like slavery.

A mere 14 hours later, I was listening to NPR and caught a This American Life story called Pro Se, about legal self defense and which involved psychiatry. I almost crashed my car when they mentioned Cartwright and drapetomania.

I provide the full context to emphasize that there is no clear connection between the two exposures. That is, there doesn't seem to be an ongoing press campaign about drapetomania, and if there were, I'm impressed that they got me to rent the relevant movie several years after its release, and on the day before the NPR story to boot. If this was the first time such a double-exposure had happened to me, you could rightly accuse me of confirmation bias. But I'm probably better-read that the average bear, so it's not all that frequently that I hear terms in mainstream media outlets that jump out as unfamiliar. If I were ten years old and hearing unfamiliar terms all the time, you'd have more of a point. But this has happened to me enough - over the course of my adult life, several times a year, at least - that confirmation bias becomes a harder argument to make.

Here are the explanations people have offered so far:

1) It's random but I'm human, so I notice it. If I work out the numbers, I would see that I hear x new terms per unit time, so there's a small but nonzero chance that the first time I hear it, I would hear the same term within forty-eight hours. Statistically, if it works out that this would happen several times a year, then it's nothing special.

2) I've heard the term before but didn't notice it until now. I find this one difficult to believe. I've been hearing "drapetomania" on radio and TV occasionally for years, and only now do I pay heed and recognize it as a word I don't understand?

3) It really is nonrandom. This would be easier to believe if (for example) I'd read drapetomania from a college friend of mine in Charlotte in an email yesterday, and then overheard someone in a restaurant talking about it today. Maybe my friend is using the word a lot, he knows other people in San Francisco and emailed them, and the meme spreads that way. Sometimes this explanation seems like a plausible candidate, but it's harder to explain with information sources that you consume nonpassively. If you hear the same term on the evening news on three different network afiliates, not so special. If you read it for the first time in a book published in 1919, and then see it in a movie released in 1983 and a newscast the same night, that's special.

Note that by posting this to my blog, if I hear "drapetomania" again in the next few days from friends, I won't know if I've influenced the spread. It's worth noting that when this has happened in the past I've sometimes heard the term three or more times in a short period, making the probability of #1 lower.

A more speculative version of #3 above is that there are strange macro-patterns operating in human behavior that we're not yet aware of, and trivial though it is, this is one of them. But without a guess at how the pattern operates that allows me to make falsifiable predictions, this is the same as no explanation at all.

[Original post, 15 July 2009]
[Added 21 December 2009 - the next time I was aware of such an instance was in the past week, when I read about lipograms on Wikipedia. 10 hours later I ran across a mention of lipograms in a James Fallows piece. This one seems more easily explained, since I was reading about lipograms because I had read something on Marginal Revolution, and bloggers and readers of East Coast literary and economic-conservative blogs are a pretty small subset of total meme hosts. Still, it puts a ceiling on the frequency of these events - if you count this one, 0.2 month^-1).

[Additional examples: I ran across Rex Wockner for the first time the last week of December 2009, and then again the same week: first, because he mentioned Point Loma and I was searching for the name of a mountain you can see from there, and then in a casual mention on Andrew Sullivan's blog. The first week of January 2010 I twice ran across the term Phallos (in reference to East Indian mythology) and twice across the term "wattle" in usages I was unfamiliar with not having to do with hanging skin (twice within six hours (in Tihkal by Sasha Shulgin, and the name of a winery.)]

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