Geek Minds

We try to understand the secrets of the geek mind through neuroscience. Why are geeks so passionate about narrative universes?

Carnival Procession. Netherlands, 1962

Carnival Procession. Netherlands, 1962 | Nationaal Archief, Collectie Spaarnestad | No known copyright restrictions

Participating in cultural, subcultural, or countercultural communities can be a good antidote against conformism. Geeks (or “frikis”, as the Spanish say), who are often caricatured, can be a analysed as a group that has an interest in peculiar styles of cultural consumption, and also combine a strong sense of individuality with a special feeling of belonging. What do the minds of these people have in common? Is there such a thing as a cognitive theory of geekness?

“It’s cool to be a geek,” For some time now, statements such as this – which are a mix of nonsense and a contradiction in terms – have been popular in lifestyle magazines, fashion blogs, and trendhunter websites, even though they are totally meaningless: after all, if geekiness became fashionable, it would no longer be geekiness.

Being a geek is not about fashion, as the origin of the word suggests. The first documented use of the word “geek” was in 1916, when it was used to describe sideshow freaks in circuses, and more generally all things strange, eccentric, extravagant, or simply weird. The meaning of the word freak was gradually distorted and became derogatory in many fields, but “geek”, when talking about subcultures, is a whole different story. Broadly speaking, a geek is a person who has a non-mainstream hobby or interest that takes up so much of his or her time and attention that it can end up becoming a way of life.

Some people just don't feel normal without coffee

Some people just don’t feel normal without coffee | Flickr, Wackystuff | CC BY-SA

In recent years, sociology and other social sciences have become increasingly interested in this community of people who are easily identifiable in spite of their diverse tastes. But the question remains: can psychology or neuroscience study the characteristics that geeks have in common? What secrets does the mind of a geek hold? There is no doubt that each human brain is unique and dynamic, and that our brains change as we go through different stages of life: for example, if, as an adult, you re-read a book that you had previously read as teenager, your response to it will be very different the second time. Nonetheless, in spite of this individual changeability, all communities have particular tendencies or aspects that are shared by most of their members. In the case of geeks, their hobbies and consumer habits give us clues to where to start looking: comics, role-playing games, fantasy and science fiction literature… Geeks enjoy letting their minds run free, fantasising about fictional worlds. Power to the imagination and creativity.

When you feel caught up in a story, it means that your mind, imagination and emotions have been transported into a fictional world. You obviously don’t travel there physically, but your mind doesn’t care about that, given the many kinds of stimulation that it gets from travelling with the imagination. As the story unfolds, the details lead us to daydream. The characters and the events come alive, and we can enter a simulated society that makes us feel sympathy or dislike for the people in it, for example. This sense of travelling and learning – along with aesthetic pleasure and entertainment value – is one of the reasons fiction exists. And it is the aspect that has the strongest effect on the minds of geeks, who want to imagine, to build possible worlds, dwell in them, and extend them beyond the boundaries of the narrative.

The fictional simulacrum thus becomes a comfort zone in which to experiment with feelings, convictions and beliefs, without in any way risking our integrity. We feel so at home that, as the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge suspected in 1817, we willingly suspend our disbelief in relation to the events that take place in the story (as long as the possible world that it describes is internally consistent). As Coleridge wisely said, it is an “act of poetic faith”. We can imagine that the enthusiasm of this English poet, critic and philosopher would have reached new heights if he had had the opportunity to experience the advances of today’s neuroscience, and discover that his intuitions very probably stemmed from the fact that the process of reading activates the zones of the brain in charge of making us daydream and imagine other possibilities.

The “neural network” is activated by default when we don’t think about anything in particular, when our attention is not focused on a specific task. It appears to be linked to organising and regulating memories on one hand, and anticipating future events on the other. So yes, you may ask: how can a zone of the brain that is linked to not paying attention be activated during reading, which is based on paying attention to a text? To find the answer, we can turn to our own experience during reading. You have just finished reading a paragraph and you suddenly realise that you don’t remember a single line, even though the story has kept moving forward. We were trapped by daydreams sparked by a particular word, sentence or idea in the text. Reading is thus attention, alternating with moments of digression.

Work with schools : after a book talk, showing boys gathered around table gathering. New York, 1920

Work with schools : after a book talk, showing boys gathered around table gathering. New York, 1920 | New York Public Library | No known copyright restrictions

And no there is no mind as predisposed to digression as the mind of a geek. In the case of geeks, daydreams are sparked by every film, every book, and every game, which transport them into a fantasy universe, where they give free rein to their imagination, letting it fly free through the events as the story unfolds, and to imagine the details that are not spelled out. Because every story is incomplete. And it is only the instructions given in the text – or the film, or the game, or… – that we can construct the meaning. And geeks take this to the limit, stretching and moulding it to their taste in order to break down the walls of the story and take advantage of the universe that is born of it, through “fan fictions” or discussions about any aspect that has not been fully explained in the finite space of the work: what a particular character was thinking or what somebody in the story felt when they were abandoned, who could live particular building, and so on.

Because often, the things that are not spelled out or described seem to be crying out to be developed further. Sometimes, the task is simple. Others less so. To attribute thoughts, feelings or intentions to human characters is part of the way our mind works, and it is a skill that most of us can deal with in real or fictional situations. Even characters who are not strictly anthropomorphic can have characteristics that spark a human response or emotion. In this sense, the field of animation is a step ahead: how else could we understand the feelings of Wall-e, a robot that looks like a washing machine topped by a pair of binoculars? What makes geeks special is the fact that they are better able to maintain an open mind in response to the extremes that these kinds of characters embrace. It may seem easy to imagine what a twentieth-century human being thinks, but the difficulty increases when it comes to the thoughts of a protoplasmic ocean like the one Stanislaw Lem imagined for Solaris.

We will probably find it hard to think of ways in which these skills can be directly applied to the real world. Few of us have come across protoplasmic oceans with a consciousness of their existence during our holidays, so we have not suffered the ridicule of not being able to think of a subject of conversation that could interest them. Nonetheless, fictions – even the ones that seem most ludicrous to us – help us to understand reality and, above all, to exercise the cognitive strategies that we use to interpret them. Because we understand reality by constructing stories, be it as prejudices, cognitive bias, memories, or imagination itself. In a world that makes increasing demands on our critical capacity, who will be better prepared than those who dedicate their lives to interpreting fictions?

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