The Right Kind of Unfamiliar

The way Data describes friendship in Star Trek: TNG (as recounted by Troi) has always deeply spoken to me:

“As I experience certain sensory input patterns, my mental pathways become accustomed to them. The inputs eventually are anticipated and even missed when absent.”

My brain craves sensory input patterns that are familiar enough to be comfortable, but also new and different enough to be engaging and interesting.

I want to learn and experience new things, but I need enough reference points to get a hold on them.

At the highest level, this is true for everyone.

If you’re handed a chunk of text in a language you don’t know, it won’t mean anything. If you’re given the materials to translate the text, then you can learn from it.

My brain is more extreme, and I have to work with that.

If I love a song, I’ll listen to it over and over again, until my brain memorizes it, starts editing it out as background noise, and I can’t hear it anymore.

If I hear an entirely new song, and it’s too unfamiliar, it’ll just sound like noise and my brain panics.

With the right work, I can find pathways from the things that are already familiar and comfortable into new spaces.

Songs that would have sounded like noise become understandable if I work my way up to them, listening to in-between pieces, learning the way their genre works.

As an example, it took me years to work my way through:

Brian Wilson -> Beach Boys -> Monkees -> early Beatles -> late Beatles -> Rolling Stones

At the beginning of that path, Rolling Stones were too hard edged and noisy for me. (I’m very sensitive to sound.) Now I like them.

Since my brain struggles so much with adapting to change, I’ve become keenly aware of the work I must do to expand my tastes.

So, when I realized I mostly listened to male musicians, I was able to consciously and actively approach expanding into listening to women artists.

It’s not good that I struggle so much to like new things. It’s not something I like about myself. But there are positive ways I’ve found to use it.

Mainly, it drives me to create things, because I need more things to easily love.

Also I seem to have become an editor.

When your brain struggles as much to like new things as mine, it feels like there’s a bright shining line between things you love and… everything else, most of which annoys you, because it scratches uncomfortably at your brain.

This is an advantage when handling a slush pile.

It may sound like this means I would only pick familiar stories, but that’s not true at all.

I’m used to almost everything in the world scratching uncomfortably at me, all day, every day. So I’ve had to become adept at differentiating between bad-scratchy and just new-scratchy.

As a tangible example—clothes shopping is the worst, because my brain reacts to every new piece of clothing as an assault. (“It feels different! OW!”) So I have to judge clothes not on whether I like them, but whether I could learn to like them.

I approach everything that way.

Books, shows, music, clothing, and yes, even people. When my brain first encounters a new pattern, it recoils, but with the right exposure and work, I can get over that hard-wired, knee-jerk response.

However, it will be work, so I have to choose carefully what to pursue.

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