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.
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.
4. As we age, we tend to gravitate more toward people similar to us.
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.
If you missed the episode, listen to it over at NPR or subscribe here.
Catch up with our recaps below or our interview with the hosts.
Episode 4, "Entanglement"
Episode 3, "How to Become Batman"
Episode 2, "Fearless"
Episode 1, "The Secret History of Thoughts"