Monday, February 1, 2010

Brain Tracks

A weekend ago I went on a ski-in camping trip. It was up a popular trail. A group of us stayed in a yurt. It was around four miles in (some people said a little less, some people said about 4.5).

I do not ski much. I have an old set of skis, boots, and poles I picked up second hand. They looked very different from what anyone else on the trail had. I fell down lots.

Throughout the weekend I found myself exploring the process of skiing. At first I was content with not falling down (as much). Then I left the parking lot and began moving up the trail. There are different variations in motion caused by simply bending one’s knees a little more. Leaning a little forward or back dramatically changes the dynamics on the skis. Changing the force of my ankle on the boot alters the tracking. Changing the ankle force one way while changing the knee bend just a little and then modulating my lean creates an entirely different experience. After skiing for a while I became aware of other factors that had individual and synergistically combinatorial effects. Some never received names and I referred to them with poor descriptions like “that thing with my shoulder” or “my wrist kinda out when the pole is just so”.

When I had a set of activities that appeared to be working I tried to make them instinctual. I relaxed and “felt” the motion instead of thinking it. Most of the action sets were probably sub-optimal and awkward at best. I would begin to fatigue during the repetitions. When the fatigue reached a certain point I would stumble and often fall.

The older XC bindings are difficult to work so I would try and stand up without removing my skis. I became quite good at this. In order to right myself I would have to squirm around a bunch. I would get my skis pointed in a good direction. Then I would plant the poles and push myself up to a crouch, then stand. It afforded me a couple of minutes after each fall to gather my thoughts.

My thoughts usually progressed like this:

1) Am I hurt?
2) No, good, did anyone see me?
3) Are they laughing?
4) Hard?
5) I should try to get up
6) How did I fall this time?

I would like to say that “reading up” on something like XC-skiing is totally worthless. Certainly when one is slipping and falling in the parking lot with only one ski on there is little learnt from a book that can help. In the moments of reflection after a fall there is some small advantage to having “read up”. Lying on my back (I did fall on my face a couple of times, but the sequence is similar) with snowflakes lighting and melting on my face I had a calm moment. Once I got back on the skis I was heading for a fall so I could not be as calm. When I answered the How question I had an inkling of what I had done wrong. If I had fallen backwards (a favorite of mine) I probably had leaned wrong or overcorrected due to too little bend in my knees. If the ski had rolled out from under my foot I was turning my ankle wrong or pointing the skis askew. If the skis tangled themselves up I was not concentrating on keeping them parallel, and probably leaning too far forward.

I had a rudimentary error correcting scheme. It would have been better to” just know” what to do ahead of time, but I did not. It is all too easy to believe that the application of reason to the error correction scheme could have been learned before the fall. This discounts the powerful learning effect that falling provides. There is something about skidding down a well-groomed ski trail on your face that opens doors to perception which are normally closed.

This is again the process of developing dialog between areas of the brain. The mind which is used to develop the dialog is running in the same brain. Because the same hardware is being used for the administrative program (setting up the dialog) and the operational program (the skiing dialog) simple misaddressing of thoughts can cause problems. The most common problem I was running into was attitude. Something as simple as having a attractive woman look at me in concern and ask “are you OK old man?” causes significant disruption in the cooperative functioning of the thought processes in my brain. Without the proper attitude I would describe the tumbles as failures and ascribe them to weaknesses that were uncorrectable. I may actually have natural balance deficiencies, but how can examining that help me ski?

I protected my attitude two ways. First, I used disarming dialog. No matter how awkward one falls responding to an “are you OK old man?” with “Yes, of course, you just look so much more lovely from down here” is cool. Second, I used repetition of thought. The more one thinks in a specific pattern the more developed that pattern becomes. It is possible to demonstrate macroscopic changes in brain cell structure in response to repetitive stimulus. This structural change is directly correlated with learning.

One can say that thought patterns can be learned by repetition and that the learning causes a permanent change in brain structure.

The actual observable wiring change takes longer than I was going to give it on a short ski trip. However, I suggest that the long-term re-wiring occurs as a result of the accumulation of immediate responsive changes. One may not get patterns discernable on microscopic examinations of thin slices of one’s brain, but changes do occur. These changes create “tracks” for further refinement of the learning repetition.

The yurt was at the end of the groomed trail. We dropped our packs, recharged in the yurt’s warmth, and explored further. Beyond the yurt there was no trail. There were two feet of powder covering a gently sloping wooded landscape. A smaller group of explorers went about a half a mile in. We shared breaking trail, but it was hard going. Eventually my companions decided to turn around. I had to continue. Here is a picture of me disappearing into the woods. They took it in case it would be a last picture of me.

I went up another couple of miles. Snowy woods during a snowfall are silent, still, and wonderful. I was still falling but I was more often upright than not. My route was out-and-back so I returned on the trail I had broken.

It was so much easier to return on my broken trail. Both the tracks I had cut and the slight downhill worked together to create a totally different skiing experience. Instead of slogging I was gliding. It was as if the earth had learned how I should ski.

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