We live the entirety of our lives entombed in our skulls. Isolated from the world by a few inches of bone, we never experience what it is like to not be in our bodies and nor do we experience what it is like to be someone else. Not even for a second. Tragically detached from the world, we are forever looking out and speculating as to what it might be like out there, what might be happening inside other people’s heads. Of course, evolution has equipped us to make these inferential leaps and studies suggest that within minutes of birth, babies have already acquired a preference for looking at human faces. As a species of pattern-matchers, we seek out our fellow humans and we try to guess what it is that they are feeling. We read emotions on faces and infer the emotional states that might be causing them. As our understanding of both human psychology and ourselves expand, we build complex models that help us to make sense of other people by projecting our own emotions onto the facial expressions we see around us. We assume that other people are like us because the alternative is unbearable. It is one thing to be entombed in our heads, but it is quite another to be completely alone.
Our skill at pattern recognition is such that all too often we generate false positives. We look at the weather and random happenstance and we infer a form of human agency that eventually becomes belief in a supreme divine intelligence. We look at images beamed from the surface of Mars and we see faces in the rubble. We look at animals and we think we recognise human emotions. We project because that is what we do. We project because we cannot stand the idea that we are the only people feeling what it is that we feel. We do not want to be alone in our experiences.
Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette is a documentary film that explores this desire to project ourselves out onto the world in order to make sense of it and concludes that these acts of projection say more about the person doing the projecting than the thing being projected upon.