Monday, March 1, 2010

The Science of Apathy (Or Maybe the Science Fiction of Apathy)

The Science of Apathy (Or Maybe the Science Fiction of Apathy)

I love sci-fi. I love real life too. It’s always so much fun when I watch sci-fi movies about aliens and space travelers and such. They’re always trying to blend in with their disguises and their shape-shifting ways, only to be foiled by keen-eyed civilians or “the government.” Earth survives another day. Yay.

But then it comes down to real life. I’d love to believe in actual extraterrestrials. But I don’t. Why? I haven’t seen any. Nor have you. Or have we? How many times have you seen someone on the street that was just so ugly or deformed or unearthly beautiful? Did it ever cross your mind that they might be an alien? Of course not. Me neither. But here’s a fun thought: what if they are? I’m sure psychologists would say that our minds simply try to incorporate the unusual into our usual frames of reference. For example, a time-displaced caveman might refer to a helicopter as some sort of bird (remember that movie?). Likewise, we would probably just think of an alien as a different-looking human. We’d just say “Oh, they must just have Down Syndrome,” or “What a an unfortunate birth defect, having a head shaped like the Sydney opera house. She should get surgery for that.”

Which brings me back to sci-fi. Remember when Captain Kirk and crew returned to the 1980’s to retrieve their humpback whales? The Shat ordered his crew to remove their Starfleet insignia. Why? Who would care? Mr. Spock wore that bandana thing to hide his ears. Really? What was the point? (Pardon the pun.) I’ve seen lots of people with weird-shaped ears but it never once entered my mind that they might be an alien. I’d venture to say that you, dear reader, have done the same.

I’ve been a paramedic and a nurse for nearly twenty years. Many, many times I’ve listened to patients’ chests and heard heart tones on the right side as well as the left, or heard breath sounds when listening to an abdomen. Breath sounds in a belly or heart tones on the right side are exactly what you shouldn’t hear. But I never suspected that they might be a timelord like Dr. Who or other such alien with two hearts or otherworldly arranged internal architecture. I just figured that my stethoscope was really sensitive or the patient’s chest was particularly resonant.

The sci-fi show that I think strikes the nail on the head psychology-wise is “Invader Zim”, a Nickelodeon cartoon that only ran for a couple of seasons. In it, Zim is a green-skinned alien with no ears and pink eyes who lives in a freakish house. He goes to great lengths to disguise himself as he plots to annihilate the world. Zim needn’t bother. The only person who believes he is an alien is Dib. Everyone else is convinced Dib is insane. All the rest of humanity is completely apathetic about the unusual happenings surrounding Zim.

That’s pretty much how humanity really is. I don’t think that there are extraterrestrials living among us; which, if you’re an extraterrestrial, is the perfect disguise. The folks that believe in aliens are the “fringe” people, and they proclaim their stories of abduction and insidious alien plots between doses of Seroquel behind the revolving door of their psychiatric facility. What if they're actually right? Like I said, I’d like to believe in aliens, but I don’t. Does that make me as apathetic as the rest of the world? Probably, but I don’t particularly want to spend my days behind that revolving door in a Seroquel happy place.

So is there a happy medium? Can a normal person find a compromise between boring, sane apathy and the men in the white coats? Just for fun, next time you see someone unusual-looking, imagine that they might actually be an alien, instead of an unfortunate soul whose eyes are too far apart or in need of a good plastic surgeon to take care of that tail or proboscis. Just the other day, I saw a man who was odd-looking (I say he was a “man,” but who knows?) His eyes were really far apart and his skin was an odd shade, sort of like you would get by putting too much butter on burnt toast. His ears were odd too, almost star-shaped. My first thought? Some black guy born with fetal alcohol syndrome. My second thought? He could be an alien and no one else realizes, or cares! The second thought, that he might be an alien, was so much more fun than the depressing disease process thought! Try it! Just be careful who you talk to about it.

See you in the asylum!

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