I Shot An Elephant In My Pajamas
I used to have this friend that had a particular skill. It wasn’t anything that was going to make him rich, or famous, but it was really fun to watch. The interesting thing was that whenever he tried to purposely do it, like think about it beforehand, it never was quite as amusing.
It even was less funny to watch, and more obviously forced, when there was a group of people, and somebody mentioned this particular skill, and then everybody turned and expected him to turn it on right on the spot. He wasn’t a shy guy, so he never melted under pressure or anything, but it seemed to be much more spontaneous whenever he just launched into this particular behavior without any prompting, and kind of riffed off of himself. Especially when it happened at a party or something when there were plenty of people around, and they were completely taken by surprise.
I was reading this article the other day about something called a pattern interrupt. This is something from NLP that goes way back. What is likely the most taught, or talked about, or referenced example is the handshake interrupt.
Milton Erickson, the famous hypnotherapist invented this, mostly by trial and error. He would walk up to somebody, stick out his hand, and right in the middle of the handshake, he would suddenly shift into hypnotist mode, and pretty soon the person would be standing there staring at his or her hand.
The way it works is like this. The brain is a very lazy organ. Perhaps lazy is the wrong word. The brain is a very efficient organ. It doesn’t want to waste a bunch of energy figuring out the same things over and over. The brain likes to find patterns, so that it doesnâ€™t have to expend a lot of energy. Most people are surprised when they find out that the brain burns over twenty percent of your daily energy. So it makes sense it wants to make things as efficient as possible.
So the way it does this is it looks for patterns whenever possible. Like when you first learned how to open a door, you pretty much knew how to open all doors. And when you first learned the alphabet, you could read any font, regardless of how esoteric or flowery it was.
If your brain had to stop everything, and spend all its energy trying to relearn how to open a door every time, then you wouldn’t get much accomplished.
One of the reasons, according to many evolutionary biologists, for the reason of our powerful brain was because we had to develop all kinds of complex social skills as we evolved on the African plains. So a large part of our brain goes into reading body language, and trying to decide who to trust and who we can take advantage of.
So it makes sense that patterns involving other people are very important to the brain. Once we figure out certain behaviors that we do over and over again, it can potentially save a lot of energy.
Meeting somebody for the first time is one of those patterns. If you can imagine what it would be like if we had to invent ways to get to know somebody every single time we met somebody new, it would be an extraordinary burden on our brain. Meeting somebody for the first time is extremely important, because how accurately we judge them can have a profound effect on our future safety, especially when you consider what it was like back in the caveman days.
If you made the wrong impression about somebody, perhaps thinking if they were harmless when they were really a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it could be devastating later on. So when you meet somebody for the first time, you need as much brainpower as possible to “feel them out,” so to speak. Which makes the handshake interrupt very powerful.
The automatic portion of the handshake, where you respond by sticking out your hand when somebody sticks out there, grab it and pump it a few times, and say the automatic “My names Jack, nice to meet you, nice to meet you tooâ€¦” is rarely given any conscious thought.
So when Erickson would stop right in the middle of the handshake, people were completely thrown off balance. The mind is do entrenched in the automatic behavior that there is a complete and total shutdown of all thought for a few moments as the “targets” tried to figure out what was going on. And during this brief window, Erickson would see how much he could get away with.
A typical interaction would go like this:
Erickson (sticking his hand out) “Hi!”
Mark (Responding with his hand) “Hi.”
Erickson (freezing the handshake in the middle) “Nice to meet you my name isâ€¦.”
And then he’d quickly grab the other guys hand with his non shaking hand, gently turn it and lift it so the other guy was staring at his palm. He would do this in less than a second.
“..as you look at your hand you can start to wonder about all those things you’ve forgotten, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to stand here and think of all those wonderful thingsâ€¦” or something similar, that would take up as much of the guys brain CPU as possible.
Then he would walk away and leave the guy staring at his hand.
I think the reason my friend was so funny when he was so spontaneous, was that everybody was busy caught up in their pre-programmed “behavior” and they would be shaken when he started to act out his bizarre behavior. If you take any popular joke, a key element is something that is completely unexpected, especially if the joke is a play on words or something, and delivers a punch line that completely shakes up the imagine that you were led to automatically think.
The old Groucho Marx joke comes to mind:
“Last night I shop an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”
Or the famous linguistic example of ambiguity:
“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
I’m sure you can think of many others.
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