Anthropomorphizing people... a slippery slope

I skulked into the Brooklyn Borough Hall Subway station at 6:30 a.m., to make it to my office for a 7:15 patient, then 10 other sessions to follow. My morning commute was preceded by one of those marginally sleepless, day-fades-to-night-back-to-day nights that are the handywork of urban hustle crossed with face-clamping-lemur 3-year-olds who fairly miss their absentee dads. While my ride was a Zen meditation of train buzz and sedation, the egress up and out of Union Square station was surreal. As I got out of the train car, a school of twitchy bluefish rubbed their spiny fins and slapped their muscular tails against my legs and shoulders, then morphed into a pack of hyperactive, disrespectful toddlers, poking me and pulling my hair, until the mass settled on the form of middle-aged commuters with faces buried in AM New Yorks or iPhone screens, trespassing through my personal space, or just trying to get to work.

Anthropomorphism typically refers to the figurative transfiguration of inanimate objects into humans or at least beings with human characteristics. Running out of the gym, I often yell at my coat for getting tangled on the locker hook and making me late. And I can certainly be spotted plaintively begging a storm wave, “Just freaking let me ride you!” But when I find myself confronted with a group of people, like this morning, poetically visualizing them as a frenzied school of blues, then shape-shifting them to children, before seeing them as real-time, non-metaphoric humans, I sense there is a wrench in my gears.

Problem 1) is: Why am I not seeing humans as humans? To be fair, I am exhausted, molested and plagued by my loving kids, over-worked, over-hustled, etc. So, a dream-like state with cinematic visuals may account for some perceptual glitches. But I sense that I am tracking into a default mode where it is easier or more comfortable to perceive and experience people, at least a mass of people, as a macro, construct, symbol, rather than as individual humans and personalities. Then, to make the mob more real to my experience, I transform them into needy and disruptive kids, something I get. Finally, by looking a few in the eye and engaging in the present, I become part of the world and accept them as compatriots. This is Problem 2): Why do I have to go through a handful of literary-device-gyrations to make humans human and engage in the world?

For this, I mostly blame the inter-web-highway, modern media, urban blight, and the collapse of family values. But on second thought, I blame myself for losing focus and getting sucked into the Matrix, the lazy delusion that I am simply playing by the rules of techno-driven evolution. When I snap out of the lazy haze on my four block walk to the office, I get back to my signature, scrutinizing gaze into the eyes of every passer-by, wondering who they are, what they’re doing, where they’re going, how they feel. So much more engaging and rewarding when the parts of the humans are played by humans.


Psychiatry in waves.
Greg Dillon, M.D.

Greg Dillon, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

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