So I’m driving down the road the other day on my way home from work and I see a few shapes in the distance. As I get closer, I realize that it is people walking on the road’s far shoulder. Seeing them, I slow down, let the car lazily drift a bit more to the outside despite the fact that they were walking in the other lane and already a safe distance away from me, and automatically extend my hand out the window and wave to them. They wave back and smile. I smile back and in a moment they disappear into my rear view mirror. I now accelerate and continue on my way.
For reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, this seemingly normal, in fact, downright mundane, interaction lingered in my mind. My thoughts on the matter centered on one question. Why did I unconsciously, naturally wave at them? Out of all the strangers I had run across on that day, these were the only ones that I had waved at. Why did I feel it necessary to interact with these people and not all the others I had been around?
It then occurred to me that I often wave to people when I am driving a car. However, it is rarely to other drivers. For me personally, I feel I am more inclined to wave when I meet a person who is traveling in an inferior way. In these experiences, I was far more likely to wave at walkers, joggers, bikers, or tractor-ers(?) than to people in an equal form of transportation. Also, I think I have been waved at more by other people while traveling in such a mode.
It’s kind of crazy to think about how many other people cross our path in the course of a normal day. As you drive your car in traffic you are constantly, physically, extremely close to hundreds of others who whiz by you or you whiz by while sharing the same road. In all likelihood, this could be the only time you encounter these people in your respective lives , and yet you go by each other without a thought of who this other person is. With the technology we have today, the world moves much faster now than it has ever before. It’s hard to see so many people every day and think of them all as individuals with their own lives instead of just another part of the blur life speeding by at a million miles per hour.
This theory of noticing those in unequal transportation is flawed and not universally applicable even for just my case. In the early paragraphs, I am referring just to country driving on the roads I drive most which are usually not very busy. Driving in a city is completely different. In a more populated area, there is no compulsion for me to wave at every pedestrian I pass by. With the sidewalks already set a distance from the road and a sea of people surging in every direction at once, these people are further removed and much more easily blend into the scenery, and thus escape notice.
Let’s go back to the initial story for a second. These two walkers definitely stuck out to me for some reason. My brain did not allow them to be filtered out as unimportant parts of the world around me. The reason for this is that they were not unimportant. As they were traveling much slower than I was, I had plenty of time to see them, identify them, and then take action, since I would have to act differently with them in the road than I would without. They did not blaze by me without causing any concern as other cars do. I saw them and had to react to their presence.
The key to this is that our brains notice what seems different about the world around them more than what seems similar to previous experience. I think this is odd because the brain tends to identify with things that it is already familiar with, so you would think that it would seek out the comparable over the foreign in order to strengthen its identity and tie with reality. However, it is the exotic in life that makes us stand up and take notice. Think about the strangers in your life that you notice during the course of your day. They are all remarkably different from the rest of their surroundings in some way. You acknowledge the existence of the really sexually attractive people and the morbidly obese. The same is true for the exceptionally and shabbily dressed, the man driving the Ferrari and the bag woman pushing a shopping cart, but those more in the middle fade into this blur around us.
Our attention is immediately called into attention when we meet such a person that sticks to us in this manner. We recognize the unusual over the usual because the brain understands less about these phenomena. With something being different comes the possibility of it being dangerous or interesting to us. Our brain must make sense of this and carefully catalogue the experience, good or bad, for the next time. This leads to the compulsion to engage a stranger in some way when they are different enough to warrant our notice, no matter if is from meeting them walking down the road, or their having an excellent pair of tits. In any case, it makes us slow down from the frantic pace of our lives and confront the humanity of this alien to our reality. And so we wave and wait for a reaction so they can be judged and classified by the mind as friend or foe.
This raises another question: why is the showing of a hand to another an almost universal greeting in our world? When we try to make sense these strangers invading our private space, we show them our hand and wave it back and forth and then eagerly wait for them to do the same in response. Our hands possess evolution’s greatest gifts to us. Our opposable thumbs are the primary difference between us and other animals (our cousins other primates excluded). It’s almost like we are showing off our pliable fingers and thumb saying in essence, “Look at what I got? You know how much I can do with these things? Do you have them too?” and if the other person can prove they have also inherited these great gifts of nature, then they’re cool. It’s kind of like a secret signal or handshake all humanity shares.