Sleep Deprivation Is Totally Not a New Phenomenon

“If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be a live. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

—Henry David Thoreau, in Walden (1854)

Thoreau’s figures have an uncannily prophetic ring in today’s crazy (and sleepless) world. Maybe it is an exaggeration that only one in a million awake enough for effective intellectual activity, for after all, we all know a handful of awake and alert people. But it is not an exaggeration by much. How many people like Thoreau do you know? Probably not that many, if at all.

In the surrounding section, Thoreau blames sleep deprivation on clocks, schedules, and “factory bells.” O, how simple their lives were, you might say. For in today’s society, we must also contend with the TV, the Internet, and the iPhone. (And my econ professor.)

I made the argument over a year ago that several things can make us resist sleep. They rest in broad categories:

  • Chemistry: Consuming caffeine or other sleep-altering substances
  • Danger: Being threatened or in some state of physical danger
  • Interaction: A two-way interaction with other people or with a computer
  • Ambition: Wanting to achieve something and sacrificing sleep in order to do it

But only a few of these things can sleep-deprive us day after day, month after month. And these things as can be seen in the categories (besides Danger, which is short-term), nearly all come from conscious habit. Since habits are difficult to get rid of, this presents a big problem for sleep deprived people. Oh well. You can always just live with it.

(I’m super sleep-deprived right now, which may explain the incoherency of this post.)

Still on Winter Break Mode

Academically, this has not been a good semester so far. I’m behind in readings for almost every class, and for the first time in my life (besides Math 2230 last semester), I am having trouble understanding some of the lectures. It’s not because they are hard, just that I am not reading, and thereby not learning the background with which to understand them.

Now that I think about it, only one of my classes last semester was mostly textbook based. The rest were highly lecture based. That suited my learning style well—I’m really good at absorbing what people say. This semester, it has become the opposite, in that only one class is not textbook based. And I guess I have not gotten used to reading textbooks yet.

Which leads me to the hypothesis, that I am still on winter break mode.

No, it’s definitely not just a hypothesis. It’s a thesis. More and more, I’m becoming estranged from education. I’m just coasting along right now. It’s kind of ironic because in high school I never suffered from senioritis. Maybe senioritis is an essential part of life. Maybe you have to get it at some point so you won’t have it later. Almost like a vaccination effect against a real disease. Because the problem is that I have senioritis right now, in my second semester of freshman year at college.

But if it is true that I am merely on winter break mode, that still doesn’t explain why this winter break was so much less productive than other breaks I have had. For instance, over the last summer break I read like 10 books; over winter break I read only 1. And it was a really short book at that.

So you do what you normally do in science: you dig back another layer. This leads me to the new hypothesis, that I am still on pre-winter break mode. What was pre-winter break? Finals.

That’s right. Once classes ended last semester, I went on coast mode because I’m not the type of person who studies for tests. But there’s still something unexplained. Even before classes ended, I was on coast mode. What happened right before that? Thanksgiving.

Of course, just saying Thanksgiving doesn’t explain a thing. No, it’s what happened right before Thanksgiving, and what I was doing throughout the month of November that paradoxically put me into this state: NaNoWriMo.

If doing NaNoWriMo taught me one thing, it was how to prioritize some activity ahead of schoolwork. I became pretty adept at it, but perhaps too adept, that it carried over into everything I did. Right now it’s just hard for me to look at a textbook for more than five minutes. I’m trying though.

Also, I have a very extensive project planned for the month of March: editing the NaNoWriMo novel. Perhaps I just need some closure on it. I’m in the “done with first draft” state, but it’s nowhere near finished. Also, I’m considering giving the actual text some more publicity this time. Just a thought.

Cars and Time Management (And Not How They Are Related)

This article is overdue by over one and a half months. In December 2010, I was writing a post each day on a topic chosen by another person. There were two topics that I didn’t get to: cars and time management, chosen by Greg T. (Westwood HS) and Sandeep P. (University of North Dakota) respectively. I’ll start with cars.

I really don’t have much to say about cars. In this case I’ll make some bullets.

  • ground-based motored vehicles
  • fast, at least compared to walking
  • fun to drive in
  • max speed I’ve been in a car: 100 mph, though not as the driver
  • number of cars I’ve driven: 2
  • new cars are shiny
  • this is the obligatory point about pollution and global warming
  • longest drive I’ve been in: 1015 miles (Austin, TX to Orlando, FL)
  • I’ve never been pulled over or ticketed, but this statement will probably jinx it
  • the first time I’ve been in a car, I might have been 4. This is because I spent my first few years in a fairly poor area in China where nobody owned a car (we moved to the US when I was 4)
  • that distinctive new car smell?
  • my typical driving speed is 100-120% of the speed limit.
  • in traffic jams, I drive on the exit lane at a slow but constant rate, leaving a wide gap between me and the person in front of me (this type of driving theoretically and sometimes empirically solves the mathematical problem  of stop-and-go traffic jams; it works by allowing people entering or exiting the exit lane to switch lanes easily, i.e. without stop-and go, which would have full-stopped not only them, but the entire lane behind that car and the lane which that car is switching to)
    • Yep, I claim responsibility to three partial clearings of the I-35 northbound rush hour jam in downtown Austin
  • Greg was insistent that this post be excellent, so here’s a picture of his car for good measure

You can click the picture to get an epic zoom of it, complete with a silhouette of myself and two other people in the reflection, next to the sun.

The second topic, ironically, is time management. (Which, if I could successfully pull off, this article would have been posted last year.)

About time management, here are 6 tips for squeezing the most out of your time:

  1. Know what you’re doing. If you are unsure of what you’re doing with your time, then you can’t really make much of it. Don’t say, “I want to do something for the next hour.” Know what that “something” is.
  2. Plan your task as specifically as possible. Know the “something” to as much detail as possible. If you’re writing an essay, it could quite paradoxically save valuable time to plan out the arguments, evidence, and organization first. This is because when you’re brain is actually engaged on the task, it will have better focus on what it is supposed to be doing.
  3. Distract yourself, but not too much. As I said about superproductivity, having too few distractions can sometimes be harmful to productivity. But don’t have too many either. (See #6.)
  4. Let others know what you are doing. This is what got me through NaNoWriMo this year. Every few days in November I posted my current word count as my Facebook status, and the responses kept me going..
  5. Have a schedule. Whether this should be specific or not will depend on what type of person you are. Make sure you have at least have some rough idea of when things are to be done.
  6. DON’T HAVE STUMBLEUPON OPEN.

5 Things that Cause Writer’s Block (And How to Avoid Them)

As a blogger, I have run many times into the issue of writer’s block, or when I can’t get myself to write. In 2011 so far, I’ve been blogging far more sparsely and irregularly than I was in 2010. I’m also doing a lot less reading and writing in general. I guess I’m just in a particularly long spell of writer’s block. It began on Jan 1. It ends now. And ironically, the article to end it will be this one, a blog post about the causes of writer’s block.

5. Worrying About How to Write It

Suppose you come up with the perfect idea and it’s Sunday and you have the rest of the afternoon to write about it. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t put your ideas into words. Even though you normally write well, it doesn’t come out right on paper (or on the screen, for bloggers). You spend hours writing and rewriting, but you’re dissatisfied with the result. It’s a week later: the paper is still just sitting there, unfinished.

Finished or not, it is still a product, a work of your own imagination. For a blogger, unless you post it, no one will know that you had ever written it. Here’s my suggestion: If you’re struggling on an article and you’re on the fourth or fifth rewrite, just post it. If you’re rewriting it that many times in the first place, you’re most likely a perfectionist, and your work is bound to be pretty good anyways by others’ standards. I’m not saying that rewriting is bad; if you’re a professional writer, then by all means rewrite as many times as you want! But for a common person like me, after four or five rewrites, it’s time to move on. If you really are unsatisfied, go back to it later, after you have given it a good one or two month break. A lot of times you’ll be able to instantly come up with what you were trying to say before. Overall, this will save time and worry.

4. Worrying About What Other People Will Think

This occurs when you write or want to write about a divisive issue, and you are opinionated on it. Perhaps you don’t want other people to know your opinion or judge you by it. Or perhaps you don’t want people to know that you even had an opinion of it. Or maybe you just came up with an idea, but are afraid that people will mock you for it.

In any case, there exist ways to get around this. There’s no foolproof way, because for anything you might argue, there will always be someone in the world who will vehemently argue the opposite. Nonetheless, here are three solutions, each of which beats not writing anything at all:

  • Write in a less opinionated way, qualifying yourself when possible. Granted, some say that you are either opinionated or not, but I think there certainly degrees of being opinionated. If you qualify yourself in your writing, the reader will know that you at least know what the other side of the debate is, and that you respect it. If you respect them, they will respect you.
  • Go into an all-out rant mode. This is the opposite of the previous bullet, and it works precisely because it is so extreme. If you are just ranting out of your heart, it is again respectable because it is what you truly believe.
  • Just keep it as it is. This is a counterintuitive solution, because it doesn’t solve a single worry you have! Yet that is precisely why it works: it lets the reader know that you are not afraid to state your beliefs.

3. Lack of Motivation

This is pretty self-explanatory: if you aren’t motivated, you won’t feel like writing. And if you don’t feel like writing, it’s pretty damn hard to write anything.

One of the best ways to defeat this is a schedule and a goal. As simple and almost un-writer-like as this may seem, it is extremely effective. The writer Mary Heaton Vorse once said, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Last November, for example, I participated in NaNoWriMo, which is a contest with oneself to write a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days. For one who is used to writing 2000-word English papers, I found the 50,000 word count daunting, seemingly impossible. What I did was make myself write at least 1667 words every day (50,000 words divided by 30 days is 1667 words per day). Even on the days that I did not feel like writing, I kept on writing. Despite having never written a novel before, I was able meet the deadline.

2. “I’m Too Busy!”

Of course you are. You have other things in your life besides writing, probably. The thing is, it’s always possible to make time. And even when you doing something else, it is possible to write or at least think about writing. “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes,” said writer Agatha Christie.

This one is no excuse for any writer, novice or professional. You just have to set aside time for it. When I was doing NaNoWriMo, on some days I would write both the 1667 words and for example a 1500-word essay. Even on a road trip, I kept up the 1667 words. Right now I’m writing this article on writer’s block while I have an entire math problem set that I haven’t started due tomorrow morning. Sorry, Professor Hubbard. I’ll get started on it as soon as this post is done.

1. Not Knowing What to Write About

If I had a number one enemy, this would be it. You might have encountered this too. A lot of times I would hit the NEW POST button on WordPress and just sit there for the next five or ten minutes not knowing what to write about. Eventually I get sidetracked, maybe check email and Facebook, sometimes StumbleUpon, then abandon the blog post altogether. Even worse, sometimes I’ll think of the perfect idea for an article, then when I get back to my room to start writing, I don’t have the faintest idea what it was.

To avoid forgetting ideas, you should best write them down. To come up with ideas is more difficult. You could try idea-generating sites to start out. WordPress this year started its PostADay project; bloggers try to make a post every day for the year. Each day, the site chooses a topic that bloggers can optionally select for their posts. Today’s topic, for example, is “What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?”

There are plenty of other ways to find writing topics. Reading the news is definitely a good way, as there is often bound to be an article that you can write about. Talking with people is great as well. Other people always have great ideas—make sure you cite them though. Other than that, have fun writing!

List of Banned Words Constitutes a “Fail”

Apparently, the Lake Superior State University takes pride in its 2011 List of Banished Words, which “refudiates” the top 2010 Shakespearean gems like “viral,” “epic,” and “fail.” Here at Cornell, and doubtless many other places, we share a different opinion on the addition of new words to the English language. Such words are the backbone of current Internet culture. Perhaps the pure linguists at LSSU who condemn such modern innovations should “man up” and face the real world as it is; of course, that suggestion “I’m just sayin’.” My own take is that we, “the American people,” should ignore these superficial laws, and adhere instead to our founding fathers’ vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of “living life to the fullest.”

Not only these, but other core American values such as freedom are contradicted by foolishly restricting the way we use words. Why should we be not allowed to use words in new ways? English, after all, is well known to be a language that grows over time. Why is Shakespeare allowed to add dozens of words to the dictionary, but the entire constituency of the Internet, consisting of millions of highly literate users, not even allowed to add a few definitions to words that are pre-existing? Below are the words in the banlist, and the reasons why each one is perfectly valid in its modern definition:

1. VIRAL

Meaning in modern culture: adj., the state of having reached a massive Internet audience.

Example: The “2011 List of Banished Words” went viral as it was facebooked 13K times.

Why pure linguists hate it: The new usage corrupts the original definition of the word, which is of or relating to a virus. Something that is viral, according to them, should have to do with biological viruses.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: An analogy is often the best way to explain an idea. When a virus spreads, the number of people affected goes up. The same happens when certain stories are shared on the Internet. Viral seems to be the most accurate word to describe such a phenomenon.

2. EPIC

Meaning in modern culture: adj., very awesome; very amazing

Example: At first I didn’t understand anything about language; then I had that aha moment, and it was like, epic!

Why pure linguists hate it: Epic has become so overused that the standards for something considered epic have been degraded to virtually nothing.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: What do they want instead? A hierarchy of epicness? Besides, from the way the Internet has used it, “epic” now has a broadened definition. Today, it refers not only to things that are majestic in scope, but also things that are funny, clever, flawless, and generally anything that is well thought-out and well made. There seems to be nothing epic at all about banning words. Well, except…

3. FAIL

Meaning in modern culture: adj. or noun, pretty much anything that doesn’t work as planned, or a plan that is extremely flawed.

Example: A: “Did you hear about that politician who said ‘refudiate’ instead of ‘repudiate’?” B: “Yeah, that was an epic fail!”

Why pure linguists hate it: Fail is supposed to be a verb: not a noun, not an adjective.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: To refuse to use a word is to fail oneself; to force others to refuse it is a fail for mankind. It has become so common a word that it is difficult to see what would happen if it were banned.

4. WOW FACTOR

Meaning in modern culture: noun, the component of a product that makes it shine.

Example: His latest novel once again has well-developed characters and a meaningful plot, but the wow factor that made it go viral was that the book invented 17 new words, all of which had become commonplace just one year after its publication.

Why pure linguists hate it: Overused; cliché.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Again, if it’s used by so many people, there’s gotta be something appealing about it. It’s because wow factor is the most precise and forcible way to describe what it describes. If you substitute it with other phrases such as “what stands out” or “the distinguishing aspect,” you run into other clichés or end up with a wordier phrase.

5. AHA MOMENT

Meaning in modern culture: noun, the moment when you understand some fact that was previously unclear.

Example: For some reason I had thought for the longest time that Shakespeare was a French epic author; when I finally realized he was English, I had an aha moment in which my linguistics homework made a lot more sense.

Why pure linguists hate it: There’s no real reason people hate it, other than that it isn’t defined in the dictionary.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: On the original site, someone said: “All this means is a point at which you understand something or something becomes clearer. Why can’t you just say that?” We can, why can’t we just say aha moment?

6. BACK STORY

I have actually never heard this term used before, so I can’t really comment on it. From my research, it seems to just be a portmanteau of background and history. It is still two words though.

7. BFF

Meaning in modern culture: nounBest Friend Forever.

Example: Would you like to meet my new BFF? She has an epic back story.

Why pure linguists hate it: The “forever” part is never true. You can have a BFF for 10 minutes, and then have a different BFF. Which means that person never was a BFF in the first place.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Just kidding, I actually agree with the linguists on this one.

8. MAN UP

Meaning in modern culture: verb, to show stereotypically masculine traits.

Example: After Jim retreated from fighting the grizzly bear with his bare hands, his pals made fun of him, saying “fail,” and told him to man up.

Why pure linguists hate it: It is “bullying and sexist.” (quote from the link)

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Again, I agree with the linguists. I assure you that the term was used in the introduction only for attention-grabbing.

9. REFUDIATE

Meaning in modern culture: verb, to repudiate.

Example: One soldier refudiated the order to man up during a hopeless assault, choosing instead to strategically retreat. She was the only survivor, the only one to live life to the fullest.

Why pure linguists hate it: The word is repudiate, not refudiate. Refudiate is just a slip of the tongue made by Sarah Palin.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: When you say refudiate, everyone will understand it. The difference is so small that it’s almost like a regional accent. Technically, /p/ is a voiceless bilabial stop and /f/ is a voiceless labiodental fricative, so they aren’t TOO different as far as consonants go.

10. MAMA GRIZZLIES

I’ve never even remotely heard of this term, but apparently it has a political back story, so I’ll skip it.

11. THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

Meaning in modern culture: noun, the American people.

Example: In November 2008, the American people wanted change, not fail.

Why pure linguists hate it: Again, because it’s so overused by politicians.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: There’s nothing wrong with the phrase. I seriously don’t understand why any person, especially an American, would be against this. The only valid complaint I could find is that the phrase “the American people” lumps all Americans into the same group, implying we all want and do the same thing. This however is a purely semantic issue. Anyone with any intelligence in any field should know that “the American people” is a generalization and not an absolute.

12. I’M JUST SAYIN’

Meaning in modern culture: interjection, what I just said is my honest opinion, but I wish that it not be associated with me in any way. OR, what I just said had nothing to do with what we were saying before, but just pretend that it was related somehow.

Example: A: “I like things viral.” B: “What?” A: “I’m just sayin’.”

Why pure linguists hate it: When formally used, it is a redundancy: of course you just said it!

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: A lot of the time, we engage in casual conversation instead of formal conversation. (And according to sociologists, casual conversation is often more important than formal conversation. I’m just sayin’.) In informal conversation, some phrases are there just for the sake of conversation. If pure linguists want people to stop saying “I’m just sayin’,” they’ll have to get people to stop saying a lot of other things too.

13. FACEBOOK/GOOGLE AS VERBS

Meaning in modern culture: verbs, to use Facebook/to use Google for something.

Example: I didn’t understand the article she facebooked, so I googled it. Then I had an aha moment.

Why pure linguistics hate it: They hate it in general when people use nouns as verbs. It impacts them so greatly.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Actually, according to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), google is a perfectly valid verb meaning to search for information on Google. As for facebook, I’m not quite sure. I still use Facebook only as a noun, but that might soon change. There’s nothing wrong with its being used as a verb.

14. LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST

Meaning in modern culture: verb, to have what you consider an enjoyable and meaningful life.

Example: I first thought of becoming a lawyer, but then I decided that stealing from the American people would be immoral, and that rather, I would live life to the fullest.

Why pure linguists hate it: The phrase is overused, redundant, and senseless.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: It’s an idiom—it doesn’t need to make literal or logical sense. And of course, “live life” is a redundancy, but it’s eloquent. The verb “live” is more powerful than the noun “life,” but if you just said “live to the fullest,” it would be utterly forgettable. To live life to the fullest is also to live the most memorable one.

So the next time you hear someone complaining against the growth of the English language, you should tell them to live life to the fullest, enjoy a few fails, and have some epic experiences. Maybe you’ll give that person an aha moment. At worst, if the person starts arguing vehemently with you, you could simply reply, “I’m just sayin’.”

Dislike vs Not Like: A General Sense of Apathy in the Modern World

There is a real difference between disliking something and not liking it. For example, you might not be particularly fond of the metal cover of your air conditioning vent, but you also probably don’t have any reason to be against it. You would be neither liking nor disliking the metal—all you care to know is that it exists and does its job properly.

Perhaps the best analogy is to Facebook, and it is a hypothetical analogy at that. Suppose Facebook has a “Dislike” option in addition to the “Like” one. Furthermore, suppose that you can’t hit both options, so that on any given status or post, your only choices are: (1) Like, (2) Dislike, or (3) Move On. What I am trying to say is that I would almost never choose (2), and that for almost anything, I will choose either (1) or (3). But it is not really option (1) that I am concerned about in this post. I care about (2) versus (3).

Now let’s create a hypothetical Facebook user; call him Aristotle. Suppose Aristotle updates his status to “I am eating an orange.” Most people would probably not care, and would not bother to hit Like or Dislike. Perhaps some of those ecstatic Orange fans will Like the status, and the Apple fans from the opposing side will Dislike it. But not many would.

Point is, there are a lot of things we don’t care the slightest about. This sentence is probably one of them. In fact, I don’t see why you are still reading this philosophical meta-discourse. Just flip to a different tab and pretend like you never saw this article.

If you’re reading this sentence, you stayed, which means you aren’t as apathetic as I had predicted. It turns out apathy is quite an important concept, making it ironically one of the concepts we should not be apathetic about.

Apathy is how we live in the current day. Ignoring things of unimportance has become a staple of modern existence. When we watch TV, we try our best to ignore the commercials, which is why many commercials have little to do with the product that they advertise—they work better by grabbing the viewer’s attention in any way possible and then displaying the brand name.

Surfing the Internet is even worse—the waters are cluttered by links, distractions, and ads. Even within a single site, for example, Facebook, we probably ignore over 80% of the things on our newsfeeds. We don’t even consider the possibility of Liking or commenting on each update.

We ignore things not because we dislike them, only because don’t care enough to like them. And because if we don’t ignore them, we would be so caught up in useless information that we would never have the time to do anything.

Now I ask you, the reader, for your opinion. Has this general attitude of apathy carried over to our real-live worlds? Are we becoming more apathetic in daily life?

For me, perhaps so. I notice I am ignoring many more things, though this may be only because of college culture. What do you think?

(Yes, I realize the contradiction here: a truly apathetic reader wouldn’t comment.)

My Mirror Behavior

One of the coolest things about college is all the new and fascinating people you meet. This probably has greatly to do with the diversity of American universities. The Cornell freshman class, for instance, has students from every state except Montana. Obviously a pretty important state, right?

It may disappoint you, however, that this article is not about any new or fascinating people who I have met at Cornell, though I certainly know many of them. It is also not about fascinating people whom I have known for a long time in Austin. In fact, this post is about a person who is, for most readers of this blog, neither new nor fascinating.

It is about me.

I noticed the strangest thing yesterday about myself. Well, maybe not strange, but certainly something I hadn’t noticed before. It’s that in any conversation, I act as a mirror. That is, when I chat with someone, I essentially acquire the attributes of that person.

It starts with the topic of the conversation. Yesterday, after my history class, I had the most extended profound discussion with someone, who is also quite a new and fascinating person: Elliot Casparian. It started out when he talked about our class as not learning history but learning about history, that the course was heavy on how history was done, that it was almost like the philosophy of history. We talked for perhaps an hour, including lunch. We ended up covering the following topics (don’t ask me what the transitions were, I don’t remember):

  • History and meta-history
  • The surprisingly advanced state of modern-day technology, including medical, space, electronic, and acoustic
  • The Internet and IPv4 exhaustion
  • Existence and the meaning of life: does it matter?
  • The multiverse, many-worlds, and simulation theories
  • Theoretical physics vs philosophy
  • Knowing and certainty
  • Mathematical proofs and the incompleteness theorem

The underlying thing is that every one of these topics has some philosophical undertone that we brought up in conversation. So unconsciously, we took the initial philosophical topic and ran with it for as far as we could. How this relates the my mirror aspect is that Elliot started the conversation, and I adjusted myself to philosophy right away.

Whether a conversation I have lasts ten seconds or an hour, and whether it is about philosophy, movies, books, computers, or whatever, I seem to always mirror the topic of discussion.

But that isn’t the interesting part.

What’s interesting is that in what I say in a conversation, the mirroring occurs not only in the content, but in the form as well.

I noticed this at first in online chats. If the person I’m chatting with tends to write proper English, i.e., capitalizing the first letter of each sentence and ending sentences with periods, I tend to do the same (thought there are exceptions).

if on the other hand the other person uses a more “normal” internet chat style, i find that i do the same

Also, if the other person uses CAPS a lot, I tend to use it as well, thought it’s usually like LOL, never an ANGRY MESSAGE.

It’s easy to notice online. But I found this occurs in real conversations just as well. For instance, I almost never curse. But if the people around me use profane language, I have a much higher chance of doing so too.

If someone is speaking very dryly and/or using elevated language, I usually do the same. If I am speaking to a person who is very argumentative, I tend to argue as well.

If people are being clever, I try to make witty retorts. If people are making puns, I go on a pun rampage. And of course, if people are being sarcastic, well, I’m already pretty sarcastic, so that makes it even worse (or better, as the case may be).

And there’s a lot more about speech that I can’t quite put into words—you know, all the subtle things that go on in a conversation. So I concluded that in conversation, I’m basically like a mirror.

But wait, there’s more?

I find that my mirror behavior doesn’t end with conversation. It extends to my daily life. And again, it’s a lot of those subtle things that I would normally never notice, that I noticed recently.

If we’re seated, how I sit is largely determined by how other people are sitting. In conversations, my gestures are different depending on whom I’m making gestures to.

My general demeanor is different, as I have found, around different people.

Exceptions

When I started thinking about this mirror behavior, I was alarmed because I had thought of myself as a nonconformist, and, well, doing what other people do isn’t exactly nonconformism. I thought to myself, oh my gosh, am I a robot?

So I began to look for exceptions. I thought of one immediately. In conversation, if the other people are quiet, I tend to be talkative, and when they are talkative, I tend to be quiet. But in those cases, I am consciously making a decision. If they are talking a lot, I feel the need to listen, and if they don’t, then I feel like saying something.

As I reflected further, I saw that exceptions in general were cases in which I was conscious of what I was doing. On the other hand, the cases where I had mirror behavior were the automatic ones.

Conclusions

Does this mean I’m still a nonconformist? Or a lesser one than I thought? Perhaps. But what interested me was whether there was a scientific basis for this. I came across “mirror behavior” in psychology, but that references a different phenomenon. Roughly, that is involved with how individuals behave when put in front of a mirror.

The closest psychology topic that I could find which still contained the word “mirror” was “mirror neuron,” which I had actually encountered before on a Scientific American article (specifically, the cover story of the Nov 2006 issue). I don’t have the magazine with me, but I remember that it linked a lack of mirror neurons to the condition of autism. If you mirror a lot, then do you have more mirror neurons? And does that make you more anti-autistic? I don’t know. Too much mirroring might have its problems too.

One last question: If I mirror other people, and this article is nominally about me, then who is it really about?