Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Become the Arrow

Sharon Wildwind

Scientists are watching brains in action while humans do all sorts of things, from playing chess to drinking through a straw. Here’s the setup for one experiment.

The test subject touches a wall with his or her finger. That’s the whole experiment: walk over and touch the wall. When the finger contacts the wall parts of the brain that have to do with proprioception (the spacial relationship of the the finger to the wall), temperature, pressure, and squishiness are activated. Squishiness isn’t a great scientific term but we can relate to the idea that touching a metal plate feels different than touching a marshmallow.

Have the person repeat the movement several times and the brain’s “got it.” It has figured out where fingertip ends and wall begins and is well on it’s way to building a memory of, “This is what it felt like to touch the lab wall with my fingertip.”

Now give the person a tool, something as simple as a stick, and ask them to touch the wall again using the end of the stick instead of their fingertip.

At first, things don’t feel right. Proprioception, pressure, and squishiness are different and temperature is completely absent. After practicing the task the brain figures out, “This is what it feels like to touch the lab wall with a stick instead of with my finger.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The end of the stick literally becomes an extension of the finger. With practice, the exact parts of the brain that activated when the finger touched the wall activate when the end of the stick touches the wall. The person’s boundaries, where finger end and the wall begins, has expanded to include the tool.

This goes a long way toward explaining why athletes and musicians develop a fondness for one particular tennis racket or instrument, and why pilots, jockeys, and NASCAR drivers can tell that their plane, horse, or car isn’t “right” on a given day.

If I were an archer, I’d imagine this extension of my fingers like my favorite ever (so far) movie special effect, the water tentacle in the 1989 film The Abyss. (“So raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water-tentacle.”)

That shimmery, watery liquid would flow from my fingertips and around the bow, but my question is, does it cover the arrow, too? If it did, would that coating travel all the way to the target or would the wind friction wear it off so that, by the time it reached the target, it was a plain arrow again?

Yeah, I know, that’s the kind of metaphysical question that makes people, including me, want to lie down in a dark room.

But wouldn’t it be neat if that shimmery, watery liquid flowed out of my fingertips, around my keyboard and mouse, up through the connecting cables, and gradually filled my computer from the bottom until the entire machine and saturated the work inside? It would be even neater if when I sent writing out into the world, there would be this shimmery coating all over the writing, which would flow off the page and into the readers’ fingertips and make them all shimmery, too. Maybe that’s what writing is in its finest form.
Quote for the week:
In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality.
~Eugen Herrigel (1884-1955), German philosopher and archer, in Zen in the Art of Archery


Julia Buckley said...

Fascinating, Sharon! What an amazing machine is the human brain.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Interesting. My brain will be playing with this one for a while.

Anonymous said...

I had heard the phrase "become the arrow" before, but a couple of days ago, I actually got it!

lil Gluckstern said...

Wonderful, I learned this in tennis-when I was playing tennis-it really felt like a new extension with the racket. How magical it would be if books could unite even more than they already do. Nice to think about.