Hope You Enjoy the Flick

Okay, so here’s a question: how useful is Tim’s “experiment”?

Tim sets out to survey the ways in which people react to him. Such reactions, any psychiatrist will tell you, are profoundly subtle things. Twitches in facial muscles in a fraction of a second will register with one who observes them and trigger similar nearly undetectable details in body language.

Many researchers draw on this when looking into the phenomenon known as “road rage.” If I drive my car and someone approaches me in another car and cuts me off as I move forward, my instinct is toward an aggressive response. On the other hand, if I’m walking down the sidewalk and someone approaches me and jumps in front of me in order to enter a shop before I’m in her way, I’m far less likely to swear at her.

The reason? Scientists put it down to something called the “eyebrow flick.” This is probably known to most people from encounters in the workplace: the first time we see a co-worker on a given day, we’ll say, “Hello,” or “Good morning,” or some such. Possibly even the second time, we’re likely to say something. The third time, we may raise our head or nod our recognition of that person. But it just doesn’t make sense to keep saying hello every time, especially if we’re likely to encounter them a dozen times a day. So, whether we’re aware of it or not, when we see that co-worker, we begin flicking our eyebrows at him or her.

Anthropologists believe this to be an instinctive, inherited behavior, dating back hundreds of thousands of years to a time when humans were brutish and tribal. As the hunter-gatherers went off into the wild in different directions, they needed a way to know whether that caveman in the distance was a friend or a competitor, and a way to identify themselves to said caveman. The thing is, if he wasn’t a friend, the last thing Og wanted to do was drop his weapon or move his hands into a less defensible position in order to indicate peaceful intent; he certainly didn’t want to have to speak and potentially scare off his next meal.

Thus the eyebrows evolved into instruments of communication. If the caveman stranger flicked his eyebrows, it meant he was a friend. As need dictated over time, human eyesight improved and human eyebrow muscles developed such that we became adept at identifying the gesture from fair distances – a hundred yards or better. Now, the gesture transcends cultures, languages and geography (though there is some debate as to whether its application in Japan has been consistent with its use elsewhere).

And so now, if someone on the pavement wants to jump in front of me as I approach, she’ll likely attempt to make eye contact, and when she does, she’ll throw off a quick flick to let me know that she’s just in a bit of a rush – it’s nothing personal. Not trying to be rude, you understand. And so I do.

The eyebrow flick is one of literally thousands of markers humans use to gauge their responses to one another. We clench our jaws, we tilt our heads, we twitch our ears, we lower our eyelids a bit. Here’s the problem: when Tim reviews tapes of his encounters, he’s not reliving the same moments from the same point of view. His camera has a perspective a good foot below his natural one; with something as subjectively interpretive as human response and body language, even a shift in point of view this small can lead to a vast disparity in understanding.

Can Tim know, for example, whether or not the person to whom he’s speaking was ACTUALLY looking him in the eye at the time? At one point, Angus looks the camera in the eye when trying to locate it on Tim’s person. How is Tim to interpret this later? In the moment, he would have had to sense that Angus was uninterested in Tim’s feelings and facial expressions, because Angus was so keyed into the camera. But in watching the tape, Tim would have been “face to face” with Angus’ enthusiasm and excitement.

Most significantly, Tim would constantly see his conversations from a lower point-of-view – always putting himself in the subordinate position to his opposite. This may well explain his heightened insecurity and hostility toward those he observes, as unconsciously he perceives them as feeling superior to him, even though it is his own camerawork that gives them their “elevated” status.

What to make of this? Perhaps this very small shift contributes to Tim’s ultimate fate. Were he merely to employ his distorted sensibility only once, the results would likely be temporary. The more he relies on this other set of eyes, however, the harder it may be for him to trust his true observations. Like laying adhesive film over a window, each successive treatment leaves behind a residue that further distorts the original view.

Which may explain why Tim has such a hard time seeing what’s coming.



2 Responses to “Hope You Enjoy the Flick”

  1. Love it! Can’t wait to see the full-length version…will try to spread the word in Balto!

  2. Thanks Aliza! We’ll keep you updated on any developments.

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