5 Things We Know About Categories (And Why We Like Them)
Are you a cat or dog person? Find out what these categories mean with last week’s episode of NPR’s Invisibilia, one of iTunes’ top podcasts.
For their six-part podcast, Invisibilia hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller examine the invisible stuff that shapes us.
Are you more of a dog or cat person? Turns out it’s about more than just having preferences: Categories offer relief. Here are some of the stories from the fifth episode, “The Power of Categories.”
1. You start distinguishing objects just months after being born.
Parents might covet their baby’s first step or tooth more than their ability to distinguish categories, says Miller, but grouping is one of our most important brain developments.
Infants as young as 4 months old can tell apart cats from pups, according to a study published in Developmental Psychology.
2. Categories help you navigate your days.
They’re second nature to you by now, but categories are shortcuts eroded into our minds over time: Knowing a couch is a couch means you are more readily able to interact with it. Otherwise you’d have to figure everything out from scratch — like whether something is safe to approach — every single day.
And groupings have all sorts of branches: social, racial, personality types, and so on. The more knowledge we gather of a category, the better we can form a reaction.
3. Some people identify as bigender.
Is the baby a boy or a girl? Gender is one of the first categories we’re placed into, often before we’re even born.
In the episode we meet Paige Abendroth, a transgender woman who in her past flipped between male and female regularly — and without being able to predict when it would happen. Since the flips have settled, Abendroth told Spiegel living in one category is much easier than straddling two.
Editor’s note: Radiolab aired a preview of this story in which they referenced a name Abendroth no longer recognizes, and corrections were made to the audio before it aired last week.
4. As we age, we tend to gravitate more toward people similar to us.
Above is a brief tour of the all-Indian retirement community featured in the episode, which coagulated when a man named Iggy Ignatius was torn between returning to India and staying in the United States. And so he built the best of both worlds in a little nook of Florida.
Ignatius was successful in recreating a microcosm of India. But why do we drift to those like us more when our end is near? Jeff Greenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, has studied how we behave when death’s on our minds, and he thinks it’s a way to fend off death.
People who aren’t like you tend to make you feel overlooked, like you’re invisible, he says. So when death lurks, you adhere to those in your own league to feel significant — and less like someone who’s just passing through this mortal coil.
5. Categories have the strange ability to soothe you without changing anything about you.
Simply drawing a line around you is actually pretty relieving, says Miller. She and Spiegel exemplified this when they had author Simon Rich read his story “The Children of the Dirt.”
In the story, philosopher Aristophanes believed there were originally three sexes: Children of the moon were half male and half female, children of the sun were fully male, and children of the Earth were fully female. Then Zeus got angry and split the blissful two-headed creatures into two, and ever since all the children search for their other halves. This is the origin of love.
But Rich says there is a fourth sex: children of the dirt. Here’s the brief passage that encapsulates the power of categories:
Whenever they saw a two-headed creature walking by, talking to itself in baby-talk voices, it made them want to vomit. They hated going to parties and when there was no way to get out of one, they sat in the corner, too bitter and depressed to talk to anybody. The children of the dirt were so miserable that they invented wine and art to dull their pain. It helped a little, but not really. When Zeus went on his rampage he decided to leave the children of the dirt alone. They’re already [bleep], he explained.
Happy gay couples descend from the children of the sun. Happy lesbian couples descend from the children of the earth. And happy straight couples descend from the children of the moon. But the vast majority of humans are descendants of the children of the dirt. And no matter how long they search the earth, they’ll never find what they’re looking for because there’s nobody for them, not anybody in the world.
It’s those last few lines that resonate with those who maybe feel a bit lonely. But for those who perhaps have a long-term companion, it doesn’t reverberate at all.
And that’s the potency of categories: You feel less alone without ever leaving the house.