Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Do People "Look" Like Their Names?

I've had this thought many times but was recently reminded of it when I watched this video by the PBS IdeaChannel (go check this channel out! It's awesome!) where YouTube commenters were talking about the presenter in the video looking like someone named Mike.

It made me think, do people really look like their names or is it just that the we associate the names with the faces? When we ask someone what their name is and they say "Ariadne" and we think "Hmm.... she really looks like an Ariadne(I wrote this post right after reading the latest Percy Jackson book and reading up on Greek mythology. That's the reason for the unusual choice for a name.)  Is it because she really does look like an Ariadne or is it just because we make the association the other way round?

I think my question really boils down to this: Do names given to people have any intrinsic ability to describe the way they look? It's very unlikely. Most parents give their children names based on a factor completely independent form their appearance. It's impossible to do that anyway since most babies look the same as soon as they are born. It reminds me of a talk Michael Shermer gave about the believing brain and how humans always tend to notice meaningful patterns in noise even if they're there by pure chance or sometimes even if they aren't there. If someone points out that that girl named Ariadne looks like an Ariadne then people will automatically start thinking that "yes she does look like an Ariadne". When I was young I really did think this way. When someone was introduced to me by name I would start thinking about how he or she 'looked' like their name.

An interesting experiment would be to take two large groups of people; one control group and one test group. The memebers of the group are not told which group they belong to of course.

Then each member of the group is shown a face and a name. The control group gets the right name for every face and the test group displays a fake name for every photo. We then compare the groups and see if the group given the false name had a higher proportion of faces labelled "does not look like name" than the control group.

To make the experiment simpler, we could just get one large group and give them a huge list of faces and names and then ask them to say whether the faces look like the names or not. False names and true names are randomly mixed into the list. Then we can compare the true names to the false names and see if the faces of the people in the falsely named photographs were more likely to be marked as not matching the name.

The interesting thing is, that this applies to everything else as well. There is nothing inherently 'tabley' about a table and there is nothing inherently 'birdy' about a bird. It's just a random sequence of sounds that we make with our mouths. At some point people got together and agreed that this particular sequence of sounds would represent animals that fly. So all languages arbitrary. It's just an abstraction that helps us to let each other know what what's going on in our minds.

I guess this is a thought Christopher Paolini had when he was making up languages for Eragon universe. In The Ancient Language names of an object are supposed to be true names that describe the inherent nature of the object. It does look like he gave the matter of words in languages being completely arbitrary quite a bit of thought. In the real world mathematics comes closest to this ideal of representing the true nature of reality.