Monday, February 8, 2010

Padded Cell

Every once in a while I get an e-mail suggesting ways to observe mysterious brain behavior. Often I am admonished that the underlying wiring patterns are evidence of “the fingerprint of god” on the human psyche. I’m not sure what sense that makes theologically, philosophically, or psychologically. It appears to be an unfortunate explanation to me. It suggests that we look to an invisible overlord for undecipherable explanations concerning something quite important to us, our brain.

Casual examples of mysterious brain behavior are fun. I especially like optical illusions. I was given one once where I was supposed to stare at an undulating pattern for a minute and then notice how the perception of the room changed. It was very interesting. Solid surfaces appeared to move, parallel surfaces ran skew. This was so interesting I then tried it for 15 minutes and ran around the house afterwards. I ran into some things, I instinctively flinched away from imaginary collisions with others. I then tried staring at it for 30 minutes and thought that it would be interesting to plot the amount of time spent staring at the illusion vs. the amount of time the effect lasted. My kids were getting somewhat concerned about my drunkenly running around the house at irregular intervals so I showed them the illusion. It’s all fun and games till something gets broken. After I deleted the illusion I have not found it again.

One mysterious brain behavior trick I get sent often is the one I call the Number Six Trick. It often comes in an e-mail worded thusly:

This is so funny that it will boggle your mind. And you will keep trying it at least 50 more times to see if you can outsmart your foot. But you can't!!!
1. While sitting at your desk, lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles with it.
2. Now, while doing this, draw the number "6" in the air with your right hand. Your foot will change direction!!!
I told you so... And there is nothing you can do about it.

Sure enough my foot changes direction. I also notice that I have a tendency to kick stuff over in my office when I try it very hard. I once pretty much unplugged my computer. How fun is that?

I have noticed that the effect is different if you alternate the foot/hand combination you use. If you use alternating sides the effect is less pronounced. Left foot with right hand or right foot with left hand generates a variant pattern. For me the variances are not so much a defined changing direction as a becoming spastic. In order to fully explore the possibilities I would need to have more padded surfaces in my office. If I begin to decorate my office in “early Bellevue padded cell” style my family will become concerned. Sometimes science must take a backseat to fashion.

In my mind I have shown that the wiring behind this trick is located in the hemispheres. It is not caused by some strange motor neuron issue. In other words this trick says something about the brain orchestrating the gyrations not the body doing the gyrations.

It is not hard to find that there are ways completely around this trick. The trick works best for layabouts like me. When people practice transcendental levels of motor coordination they are apparently able to work around this trick. Mystics, Yoga devotees, and Kung-fu masters have all supposedly beaten this trick. There is supposedly a video somewhere of Jackie Chan trumping this trick. I have not really looked for the video too hard. I am extremely receptive to the idea that this trick is beatable and the level of proof needed to convince me of that fact is small.

What this means is that the trick shows a malleable pattern of activity in the brain that controls functions subconsciously. Because intense conscious concentration cannot alter the behavior in a reasonable period of time the pattern appears to be permanent. Concentrating harder does not generate faster results.

To cause a change the individual must be able to load instructions from the cerebrum to the cerebellum. Finding masters at foot twirling with simultaneous number drawing might be possible. There is probably a video on YouTube of a group of young monks drawing a hundred digits of Pi in the air while spinning both their feet in complex patterns, but I have not looked for it. The idea that people who are adept at transferring data between their cerebrum and cerebellum for other activities can also do so for this trick is interesting. It is interesting because it suggests that it is the communication which must be learned, not the message.

Each of the disciplines which have purportedly beaten the six trick are steeped in spiritual theologies. The mental activities are exercises in manipulation of spiritual principles. The tricks of re-working patterns in the subconscious brain are presented as proofs that the spiritual mumbo-jumbo used in performing those tricks is true. It does not prove that at all. It does, however, show that the spiritual mumbo-jumbo is effective.

The problem with tying a communication technique to theology is that it limits the breadth and complexity of what can be said. I firmly believe that it is possible to create an engaging and effective conscious-subconscious communication method that is adaptable enough to transmit whatever message is desired. This communication method will free people to express more of their valuable humanity.

There are many things to do that are much more enriching than foot twirling. For me the path to foot twirling perfection goes through a padded room. If I end up in a padded cell I do not want it to be because of my interior decorating talents. I will continue to explore this aspect of my brain.

At least until I change my mind about it.

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