Putting Pillow Talk To Good Use.

I have a game suggestion for all the brainy couples out there.

Once, not so long ago, I was involved with a smart girl. She was probably a solid 3-4 standard deviations above the mean, so pretty goddamn sharp.

Speaking of standard deviations, it was junior year and I was studying statistics as part of my Psychology degree. One of the things I learned about was called a “Z test”.  If memory serves, a Z test doesn’t compare two test scores from two different classes directly, it compares their distance from the mean scores in their respective classes. So you can sort of do an apples vs. oranges comparison, at least in principle.

My memories of junior year are hazy for many reasons, but at some point I decided to turn the concept of comparing two wildly different things into a game. I think it happened one night as we were laying in bed and I was explaining Z tests, but I don’t remember. I do know that I took to calling it “Z game”.

Here’s how it works:

The first person makes a comparison between two dissimilar things, like “apples to oranges”. The second person takes the last word and makes a new comparison, like “oranges to cauliflower”. You take turns like this indefinitely. An example dialogue might look like this:

Her: pulsars to zebras                                                                                                                   Me: zebras to sonnets                                                                                                                     Her: sonnets to snowstorms

It takes a little while to get warmed up, but it is quite a bit of fun. We would lay around and do this shit for hours.

Here’s a few of the reasons that this is fascinating:

1) We each immediately understood why it would be fun, with no explanation necessary. The brain is prone to associative thinking, and I suspect smart people will get a kick out of toying with this cognitive machinery.

2) There is no winner and no end other than when you drift off into sleep, but there is an intuitive sort of point system. We both recognized “good” answers immediately and called each other out on “bad” answers. This despite the fact that we never set up any criterion for judging answers; we probably agreed on our evaluations 90% of the time, even when we were evaluating each other negatively. In other words, I knew when I had made a bad move in Z game.

3) It isn’t just associative distance that counts, though that’s a factor. “Mozart to music” would be kind of a lame move, because “music” probably leaps to everyone’s mind as soon as they hear “Mozart”. You get no points for obviousness in Z Game.

But there are other factors at play. In the above example, I suspect that most of the people reading this liked “sonnets to snowstorms” more than the other comparisons. “Zebras to pulsars” is certainly an unusual juxtaposition, and it does paint an interesting picture in my mind. But there is a subtle interplay between novelty, complexity, beauty, lyrical quality, and evocativeness. The images created by “sonnets to snowstorms” are haunting and suggestive, and the words are musical and alliterative; indeed I can feel a poem just begging to compose itself in my mind as I write this. That isn’t true for “zebras to sonnets”.

4) Multiple linguists and cognitive psychologists believe that metaphor is fundamental to how we think about the world. Perhaps those comparisons are best which map most fluidly onto our intuitive metaphorical frameworks.

5) We didn’t do this much during the day, but I think that it will work best at night, as your drifting into semi-sleep and your brain is chock full of associations from the days musings.

This sort of silliness was what made our relationship great. We bonded a lot doing this. Z game is kind of like a playful two-person rorschach test. You can more clearly see the eddies and currents of another person’s stream of consciousness by seeing the associations that come naturally to them.

If you have an IQ above 110 this will probably be interesting to you. If you like poetry you will probably want to test it out. If you read Hofstadter and meditate, you probably won’t be able to resist.

Give Z game a try sometime and see what pops up.

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