Getting a Head of Ourselves

In his story “Second Person, Present Tense” (published in the November Clarkesworld), Daryl Gregory starts with two quotations. One of these is from standup comic Emo Phillips: “I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized who was telling me that.” Its presence there becomes clear as you read on in the text. Briefly, narrator Terry was a girl named Therese who overdosed on Zen, a drug described as “a kind of arty, designer escape hatch” that derails “the whole process of updating the self that’s been going on for years.”

One of the cool infobits (if it’s not made up) in the story is that our brains know what we’re going to do before we do. Example: when you look down at your hand and think “I’m going to move my index finger” and then you do, your brain sends the signal to move your finger 120 milliseconds before you think “I’m going to move my finger” and then do. As Terry describes it,

The conscious mind—the “I” that’s thinking, hey, I’m thirsty, I’ll reach for that cold cup of water—hasn’t really decided anything. The signal to start moving your hand has already traveled halfway down your arm by the time you realize you are thirsty. Thought is an afterthought. By the way, the brain says, we’ve decided to move your arm, so please have the thought to move it.

While that gap is normally around 120 milliseconds, “Zen extends this minutes. Hours.” You do things without knowing you’re doing them because the “please have the thought” message doesn’t get to the brain until much later in a sort of flashback form. When you overdose on Zen, as Therese does, those flashbacks don’t happen at all. After she ODs, Terry wakes up in the hospital with no recollection of who she is. The process of creating and updating her self starts anew. The story revolves around coping with the disconnect between the people who know Therese, her parents especially, and the Terry that is now conscious in Therese’s body and between Terry and her former self.

The story is intriguing but even more so is the description of how the brain works by Terry’s physician. He uses metaphor, beginning by describing the cells in the brain as being like the British Parliament: “dozens of nodes in the mind, each one trying to out-shout the others.” When a sufficient number of the cells are shouting in unison, a thought or decision is formed and Parliament sends a signal to the body to act on the decision. At the same time, Parliament sends a “Page” to deliver news of that thought/decision to the “Queen” (consciousness). The Page, if you want the complexicated [complexly complicated] version, is “a cascade of neural events in the temporal area of the limbic system that meshes the neural map of the new thought with the existing neural map.”

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Your Unconscious Brain

So, something I rarely think about, because we don’t have to it seems, but am thinking about today thanks to Terry’s story, is how the brain produces movement. Although it occurs nearly instantaneously, an incredible number of things have to happen for it to, well, happen, as the (coincidentally?) titled “How Does the Brain Produce Movement?” explains.

Movements such as reaching for a cup require the participation of wide areas of the nervous system. The motor regions of the frontal lobe formulate the plan and command the movements required to reach for the cup [and then, apparently, tell us that we have decided to reach for the cup]. The message to the muscles is carried by pathways from the frontal lobe to the spinal cord. Motor neurons of the spinal cord carry the message to the muscles of the hand and arm. Sensory information from the visual system is required to direct the hand to the cup, and sensory information from sensory receptors in the hand is required to confirm that the cup has been grasped. The basal ganglia participate in the movement by estimating the forces required to make the grasp, and the cerebellum participates by correcting errors in the movement as it is made.

So, it’s a wonder, literally, anytime we accomplish anything. Even more so if the brain indeed anticipates our intention to take an action and gets the ball rolling ahead of our decision to take the action. For most people, that is. I lag in this department. On occasion, I can stare at my coffee cup for ten seconds or longer before reaching out to pick it up. This leads me to believe that there’s much more shouting going on in my Parliament than in the legismotory [decision process] bodies of others. Either that or everyone in my Parliament has OD’d on Zen and, metaphorically speaking, has left the building without my knowing they have left the building. I fear the latter may be the case. What other explanation could there be for that faint unending echo I hear between my ears?

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My Unconscious Brain. Sigh.

Daily Ratspression™: blogked

Today’s “word” from RatBlurt’s Ridictionary™: For When Normal Words Fail You.

blogked    adjective    \`blahgkt

  1. The state or quality of a blogger who is exhibiting or affected by a psychological writing blockage or blocking, that is, the brain lies unfevered; imagination languishes on cold, infertile ground; genius has left the building.

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To view the blog where this word first appeared, see “Ink a Dinking Around” (July 22, 2014).

While the format of these “words” for the day mimics that of dictionaries, unless you have been reading my blog RatBlurt™, you won’t find these terms anywhere—at least not yet. It is my fervent and also extremely ridiculous hope that all of these terms will one day grace the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. So, if the source of these fictords [fictitious words] is a dictionary, which it is not, it would be a ridiculous dictionary, hence the made-up name “Ridictionary™” [ridiculous dictionary].

A M**D Case of Brain Splatter

Punctuation marks. What’s their story? In the endless search (mine anyway) for the strange and wonderful, they certainly qualify. Sure, we know the period, the comma, the question mark, and the exclamation mark. But what about the guillemet, the solidus, the octothorpe, and the obelus? Each one has its own specific role in our language and its own history. Today, for no discernible reason, I’ve focused my less-than-laser-like attention on the asterisk, or, as it is better known, the *. The asterisk, like many marks and the words that describe them, is multi-functional:

  • In writing or printing, it denotes the omission of words or letters, as in “f**ck.”
  • It is appended to something (a home-run record, for example) to indicate a limiting fact or consideration that diminishes that something.
  • It indicates someone too minor for prominent mention.

The “asterisk” label for the * came to us from the ancient Greek asterikos, or little star, for obvious reasons. In that form, the character is two thousand years old, first used by Aristarchus of Samothrace in proofreading Homeric poetry to mark duplicate lines. In the Middle Ages, it came to denote the present use of linking text to an explanatory or additive “marginal” comment.

Asteriskos

The versatile asterisk also gets used to represent a multitude of things in various fields—computer science, economics, fluid mechanics, human genetics, and linguistics, for example. The one that intrigued me the most out of these was this appearance: *book. Any guesses? If you are a gamer, you might know. I sure didn’t, but then, since birth, I haven’t progressed much beyond “War” in the game department. *book is shorthand for “splatbook.” Certain characters in role-playing games, it seems, are called “splats.” The *books are sourcebooks that provide additional details and rules options on facets, character classes, or factions in RPGs.

That’s not as exciting as I thought it might be. In my view, in the fictional world a “splat” should be a character like the Red Shirts on Star Trek, the poor sods who’s only job was to die whenever the Away Team beamed down onto some unknown planet. They should be called splats because, well, they get splatted in various and sundry horrible ways. The * well represents them because, when viewed up close, it looks like the remains of something or someone that has been splatted, or, officially, something that “flattened on impact.”

*

“Well, Bones?”

“I’m sorry, Jim. We’re too late. He’s dead.”

Right?

*********

That’s all I have to say about the asterisk, other than to note that this less-than-sterling depiction of it is fated to be little more than one, an asterisk that is, in the storied history of blogdom. Much as I hate to admit it, knowing that is a f**cking great relief.

Why Sky Blue?

Biographordinaire [biographer extraordinaire] Walter Isaacson recently published a new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. He’s been doing the talk-show rounds and publishing attendant articles about it since then. One such appeared in Time: “What Makes a Genius? The World’s Greatest Minds Have One Thing in Common.” The secret ingredient for genius, Isaacson reveals right up front, is creativity: “the ability to apply imagination to almost any situation.” For da Vinci especially, he writes, his “most inspiring trait was his curiosity”:

Take the blue sky, for example. We see it almost every day, but not since childhood have most of us stopped to wonder why it is that color. Da Vinci did. He wrote page after page in his notebook exploring how the scattering of light by water vapor creates various misty or vibrant shades of blue.

Well, now he, da Vinci, and Isaacson have got me curious, too. So, why sky blue? Apparently, we forgot what da Vinci had already discovered. For a time, Todd McCall tells us in “What Makes the Sky Blue?“, textbooks told school children that the sky is blue because our atmosphere is colored blue or contains a blue substance. Another myth is that the sky simply reflects the blue of the ocean. In truth, it has to do with electromagnetism and prisms.

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This is where it gets a little sticky. To help my science-averse brain understand better, I turned to NASA’s SpacePlace for kids, which also asks, and answers, why is the sky blue? Here’s the short and simple, I hope, answer:

  • White light comes to us from the sun and travels through the atmosphere to reach the earth’s surface.
  • When white light travels through a prism, it gets separated into all its colors.
  • Light travels in waves—some are short and choppy, others are long and lazy.
  • Light travels in straight lines unless something reflects it (mirrors), bends it (prisms), or scatters it (like molecules of gases in the atmosphere).
  • Re the latter, blue is scattered more often than other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves. If blue didn’t exist, we would have green skies because that’s the next color up on the wavelength chart.
  • We see more red at sunset because the light passes through more of the atmosphere to reach our eyes and most of the blue light is scattered into oblivion, allowing the reds and yellows to get through to us.

In reality, the sky is more violet than blue because violet has an even shorter wavelength. Trouble is that wavelength is one human eyes can barely see it. I wish it were otherwise. A clear violet day might be cool for a change, don’t you think? On other hand, it would mean all those songs would have to be changed. “Violet skies, smiling at me, nothing but violet skies do I see”? Um…no.

An Unheard Voice from Beyond

As with any calendar day chronicled on Wikipedia, November 26 sports a long list of distinctive events that happened on this date, beginning with the imprisonment of Asturian queen Adosinda in 783 and ending with the launch of the Mars rover Curiosity in 2011. Out of all these moments in time, the one that caught my eye was this from 1977: “An unidentified hijacker named Vrillon, claiming to be a representative of the ‘Ashtar Galactic Command,’ takes over Britain’s Southern Television for six minutes, starting at 5:12 p.m.” Apparently, Vrillon overrode the station’s audio signal during the evening news with his own signal to offer two warnings to earthlings: 1) “All your weapons of evil must be removed,” and 2) “You have but a short time to learn to live together in peace.” Ironically perhaps, Vrillon ended his six-minute-long pronouncements “shortly before the end of a Looney Tunes cartoon.” Why the station kept broadcasting during all this remains a mystery. Either it was in collusion with Vrillon or Vrillon stole this prologue from The Outer Limits to freeze everyone into powerless inactivity:

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next [six minutes], sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set.

Evidence for Vrillon’s obsession with The Outer Limits rests in the show’s first episode, titled “The Galaxy Being.” In it, a radio station owner “inadvertently makes contact with an alien from the Andromeda Galaxy on his 3D television [the human’s, that is].”

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Through a series of unfortunate events, the alien is accidentally sucked through the radio transmitter to earth from Andromeda. We try to destroy it, of course, mostly because the “natural” microwave radiation it gives off kills or injures several people. The alien, who earlier told the station owner that it was forbidden to contact humans because “you are a danger to other galaxies,” is not harmed by our attacks but it is a little annoyed. It destroys the offending radio transmitter, warning us that “There are powers in this universe beyond anything you know…. There is much you have to learn…. Go to your homes. Go and give thought to the mysteries of the universe.” In a demonstration of the wide gap between fiction and reality, the pitchfork-and-torch crowd does just that. Well, at least they quiet down and return to their abodes. Whether they ponder mysteries is an open question.

After they’ve left, the alien announced that, since it has violated the galactic law about coming anywhere near us, it cannot return or even phone home. Instead, it turns down its “microwave intensity which causes it to fade from the Terran realm.” The episode closes with this voiceover homily:

The planet Earth is a speck of dust, remote and alone in the void. There are powers in the universe inscrutable and profound. Fear cannot save us. Rage cannot help us. We must see the stranger in a new light – the light of understanding. And to achieve this, we must begin to understand ourselves, and each other.

In similar fashion, Vrillon told his listeners that our planet was entering the Age of Aquarius, which could be a time of peace and evolution for them. He ended with this instruction:

Have no fear, seek only to know yourselves, and live in harmony with the ways of your planet Earth. We of the Ashtar Galactic Command thank you for your attention. We are now leaving the plane of your existence. May you be blessed by the supreme love and truth of the cosmos.

It surprised me to learn (and probably shouldn’t have) that the Ashtar Galactic Command is a real thing. The AGC is described as a UFO religion. Its members believe they are a “cosmic ground crew” whose mission is to protect humans from themselves by, to stay with the Age of Aquarius, “letting the sunshine in.” I have to say that, so far, they are falling down on the job bigly.

I do see a slim hope in all this, however. Apparently, the AGC guys know how to “leave the plane of our existence.” Maybe they even have a ray gun that can cause selected earthlings to “fade from the Terran realm.” This might be extremely useful right now. I will investigate further. The next time I’m at Publix, I will visit the cereal aisle and check the back of every box there. If I find an offer for said “intergalactic fade-awayor,” I will order it and report back…well, I will, that is, as long as it’s no more than $0.99, shipping included.

Image: Still from “The Galaxy Being” episode of The Outer Limits. Fair use.

Daily Ratspression™: Astoundicity

as·toun·dic·i·ty   noun           \ahs town `diss ih tea

  1. The quality of something being astounding by virtue of its audacity, as in “wow, I can’t believe they had the gall to say that!”
  2. The quality of something being astounding by virtue of its profundity, as in “wow, their incredible insight and understanding just blows me away!”

See The Thundershirt (June 29, 2012).