What Does He See In it?
Friday 13th April, 2018

I was in Unicorn talking to Iva. A student came in, riffled through the rack of shirts, and pulled out a white polo shirt. He pulled it on over his black T shirt, and started admiring himself in the full-length mirror. Turning himself from side to side, adjusting his collar, craning his head over his back.

To me, the shirt was so uninteresting that I can't work out why he gave it so much time and care. To try and understand this, I remembered a fable by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. He tells of two coffee tasters, Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn, who worked for Maxwell House. When they started their jobs, Chase and Sanborn both loved the coffee. "It's the best-tasting coffee in the world," they said.

But over the years, they become less and less happy. Mr. Chase confides to Mr. Sanborn: "My tastes have changed." I used to love that taste. But I think I now want something more sophisticated. That taste now bores me."

Mr. Sanborn replies to Mr. Chase: "For me, the experience is the opposite, but the effect is the same. I still love that taste. But when I drink Maxwell House, it's no longer that taste that I taste. With you, your perceptions seem to be the same but what you want from them has changed. With me, it's my perceptions — my ...tasters... — that have changed, while my wants stayed the same."

So, analogously, it is between me and white-polo-shirt man. Is his vision better, so that he's seeing details I can't, but that I'd like if I could? Or is it his aesthetics that are better, so that he sees the same as I do, but appreciates subtle details for which my aesthetics are too coarse? It's very odd. I can't work out what he was seeing, when he was preening and adjusting with his little careful touches.