Man's Search for Meaning and Korean Karaoke

Why does our mind search for meaning even when there isn't any?

Posted May 26, 2014

Korean karaoke

the images and lyrics are randomly aligned in Korean karaoke

We humans are curious creatures, and it's a good thing, too. Our world is complex, and the environment changes over time--through ice ages, migration to different biomes, and so on. But our cultural environment changes even faster. 

Being curious about our environment, trying to figure out the world we see, is necessary for our very survival. 

As a result, we search for meaning even when there isn't any. Popular examples include playing records backward to look for hidden messages: if you try hard enough, you can hear something that sounds like words. 

In my forthcoming book, Riveted, I dedicate an entire chapter to how incongruity causes interest and curiosity. Recently I was at a birthday party where we did Korean karaoke, and realized it's a great example of the finding of meaning in nonsense. 

In Korean karaoke, the lyrics are on the screen, but behind those lyrics are videos that are randomly chosen. So you might be singing about your lost love, but see a video about stunt bikers. What's interesting is how intently we watch these videos, and we feel our minds desperately trying to find connections between the song and the visuals. And find we do! Sometimes a lyric will lament what a lover has done to us, and at roughly the same time someone will spill ice cream on someone's blouse in the video. It's hilarious. 

If we understand that the videos are randomly selected, why on earth would we search for meaning in them? It's because our minds are not set up to understand randomness very well. Korean karaoke is a very artificial environment in which correlations are merely that, but in the real world we use correlations to be able to understand and predict how our world is going to behave. Simply put, we evolved to look for meaning in everything

And when we look hard enough, we find it. 

Postscript: The title of this post is a reference to Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning. Otherwise I would not have used "Man's" to refer to "Humanity's."