The Ro-ad Phenomenon

There is a scene in Black Sheep where David Spade becomes fascinated by the simple word "roads."

(giggling) Roads! Ro-ads. Ro-ods.

We could write it off as the consequence of nitrous oxide exposure (he was really high at the time), except that we have all had this happen to our perfectly sober selves, which is in fact what makes the scene so funny.

But why do common words, so examined, seem completely ridiculous?

The cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky imagined1 that the brain has different agents for different tasks, like, say, listening to music. Searchers at the lowest level collect data, like notes, peaks, or pulses; above them, Difference-Finders discern objects, separating figure from ground; and at the top, Structure Builders try to make sense of all the lower levels (perhaps identifying a "sequence" or "polyphony"). All of these guys are highly nested, and at each level agents compete to have their "interpretation" heard. So what happens when there's not much going on?

When none of them has any solid evidence for long enough, then agents change at random, or take turns. Thus, anything gets interesting — in a way — if monotonous enough! We all know how, when word or phrase is oft enough repeated, it — or we — begin to change; because the restless Searchers start to amplify minutiae, interpret noise as structure.

Thus features that are normally discarded, like the potential syllabic split in "road," are amplified if we press hard enough. It's just that usually (like when we're not high on N2O), we're too busy for the engrossing details. Imagine if every time you got a cup of coffee you pondered its role in the agrarian history of Ethiopia, compared its color to your professor's pants, and really smelled it; you would piss off everyone behind you in line. Like any other heuristic, we "take stuff for granted" because it helps us get on with our lives.

Yet all kinds of illuminating possibilities avail when you take a closer look, though you might seem like a pothead for trying:

They call 'em fingers, but I've never seen them fing.

—Otto, The Simpsons.

For instance, I had generally ignored trees until I began to see them as complex machines (and not just quaint scenery); the same goes for eyelids, ear wax, and avalanches — each is incredibly rich when you think about it. More concretely, I had until yesterday taken for granted the way .jpeg files were generated, when I had a friend explain the process; now I know a little about bitmaps, old assembler code, and the limitations of the human eye.

I suppose I am suggesting that there is an alternative to regular drug use for finding a "new perspective," and it need not be as silly as ro-ad or clichéd as being awed by nature. What's more, the process reveals a kind of "bug" in our sub-cognitive machinery that can illuminate the way we think when we're not engrossed in something, i.e., when things appear completely normal. It suggests, even, that we can take a crack at "normalcy" itself.

1. Minsky, Marvin, Music, Mind, and Meaning, (A.I. Memo No. 616, MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, February 1981), pp. 11, 12, 19.