Monday, July 13, 2009

Lag Time

Back in our hippie days -- I always feel as if maybe I should spell that latter word "daze" -- one of our touchstone books was Be Here Now, by Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert.) After chugging lots of acid with Timothy Leary, Alpert trundled off to India and found a spiritual teacher, gave up drugs, and Be Here Now was a kind of fat graphic-novel presentation of what he learned.

The upshot was, that being in the moment was the way to go -- the past was history, the future always just out of reach and all you had was the present, and that you should live in it.

It resonated with a lot of folks, still does. Can't see the future/ can't change the past/ all you have is just the moment/ and it never, ever lasts ...

I had occasion to revisit Tor Norretranders outstanding book The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size this past weekend, and, strictly speaking, we don't consciously live in the moment -- we are about a half-second behind ...

This is great stuff, and in this instance, the section called "The Half Second Delay," he addresses this concept in detail. The gist of it is, the unconscious brain is aware of our intent to do things about a half second before it becomes action. There is a Readiness Potential, followed by a Conscious Wish, the initiation of Control, and finally, the Act itself. This has been determined experimentally, using assorted tools, including EKGs, and the wonderfully-named Wundt's Complexity (or Complication) Clock. (Consciousness kicks in a mere 0.20/second before the Act, not much more than a blink, but the subconscious mind knows you are going to wiggle your finger 0.35/second before you are consciously aware that you are. Which is -- not to muddy the waters or anything with the term, but -- mind-boggling ...)

It brings out all kinds of philosophical questions. The author has a wonderful line about our consciousness, that it is " ... but a little tin god pretending to be in charge of things beyond its control ..."

Norretanders is quick to answer those who hold up reaction time -- it doesn't take half a second to pull our hand off a hot stove -- as a demur. Reaction time lives in the unconscious brain -- you jerk your hand off the stove and then say "Ow!" not the other way around.

He then tosses up assorted reasoned objections to this notion, and promptly shoots them down. It's a great lesson in science, and I urge you to have a look at the book. It will make you wonder about all kinds of notions you normally take for granted.

What I find really interesting as a writer (and a martial artist) is, if there was a way to access this Readiness Potential directly, how that might be used in a fight? If I were to be a third of a second ahead of an opponent, and I had position and skills to make us of this beat, how much of an advantage would that be?

You can't outdraw the drawn gun, but if you could, boy, wouldn't that be a neat trick?


Dan Moran said...

(Consciousness kicks in a mere 0.20/second before the Act, not much more than a blink, but the subconscious mind knows you are going to wiggle your finger 0.35/second before you are consciously aware that you are. Which is -- not to muddy the waters or anything with the term, but -- mind-boggling ...)

Which is one of the reason that some sports are very hard for intellectuals to learn. Smart geeks can lift weights, ride bicycles, jog, do a bunch of things like that ... but basketball, boxing (interested in your thoughts on silat in this regard) ... things where you have to get your brain out of the way and go, are hard for them.

I still get caught up in my head sometimes on the court -- about 10% as often as I used to; there's nothing I do in my life that gets me into flow state as quickly as basketball, and that's valuable to me. (I write better after playing basketball -- I'd write more if I could play every day.)

Dan Moran said...

I did write more back during the days when I played every day. Interesting. I've never phrased it that way in my head before.

I think it's mostly the presence of 5 kids in my life, but that's still an interesting thing to realize, at this late date.

Steve Perry said...

Exercise is good for a lot of things. Even a long walk with the dogs will engage story problem-solving for me a lot of time.

The theory in silat as we play it, is that once you get behind the speed/power curve, it is hard to catch up. If you throw a punch and I counter and we go beat-for-beat, I'll always be behind ---punch/counter/
punch/counter, ad infinitum.

Action leads reaction.

Thus it is better to stay ahead of the attack, and there are ways to get there. One is positional. You force your attacker to adjust to you, e.g. you get out the way -- or you change the distance in or out or sideways so that it favors you. Thus, if your attacker has to take a full step to utilize his weapons and you get there before he does, you have the optimum ground. You short-circuit his attack.

A guy expecting to take a step and punch gets messed up if he only gets half a step and finds you in his face.

Another way is in timing. You do half- or third-beats to his one, and thus get ahead.

In musical terms, this would be like taking a whole note and breaking it into half-notes or triplets. He punches once, and you offer three punches in return in the same amount of time, thus forcing him to defend rather than continue an attack.

Combing both is even better. If I'm in the right place at the right time and outshooting you two or three to one, it's to my advantage.

That's the theory.

Rory and I have some great discussions about what happens when you get surprised and don't have time to get to the right place at the right time, and he makes good points about this. Still, if you are going to train for something, a way to deal with somebody who is faster and stronger is better than hoping the attacker will be slower and weaker. Position and timing offset a lot of speed and power.

James said...

Consciousness is highly over-rated. It can't handle the bandwidth of reality. Which is another theme in that "Blindsight" book I mentioned one Blog up. weird.

Michael Bourgon said...

Steve: sounds like a good character for a book. :)

Dan: well, you can play 6-man games, right? Go play - I want the other 33 books of the Continuing Time.

steve-vh said...

"If I were to be a third of a second ahead of an opponent, and I had position and skills to make us of this beat, how much of an advantage would that be?"

I've often consoled myself with the assumption that this skill had already been accomplished by Mushtaq, therefore no reason to feel so bad when he consistently trounces me.

Some guy said...

Achieving that sounds like pretty much the same thing as when someone trains a technique to the reflex level, getting rid of that excess "conscious time". Maybe there's a difference I'm missing.

Some arts train to respond to touching the opponent, rather than seeing the opponent (mostly, anyway). I've sometimes wondered if that's because it's easier to get the subconscious to react to a touch stimulus than a sight stimulus. No actual idea, but if that were true maybe it would be an efficient way of developing the preconscious reaction. (For what it's worth, I just quizzed the security guard here, Viet Nam vet and long-time martial artist, and he's of the opinion that the stimulus mode doesn't matter one way or the other.)

Steve Perry said...

According to Manfred Zimmermann's book Human Physiology, the bandwidth of sensory input (in bits/second) goes:

Eyes 10,000,000
Ears 100,000
Skin 1,000,000
Taste 1,000
Smell 100,000

Which means most of what we know about the world comes in through the eyes, and that's the way the brain's processing power is skewed.

In hand-to-hand at grappling range, the speed of thought is too slow to keep up, so seeing and then reacting is hard because a) it is too slow and b) you are too close to see properly anyhow. This would be where touch comes in -- balance, motion, and I'm not sure how kinesthetic feel fits into the input scale. But feeling a weight shift and reacting is would seem to be faster.

Edwin Voskamp said...

It may well seem faster, but it does not How do you figure that?

If, as you say, the speed of thought is too slow to allow seeing, then reacting, how would it be fast enough to allow sensing, then reacting?

Steve Perry said...

I think the kinesthetic sense of balance is on an unconscious level, so feeling it would seem to be faster than seeing it.

The other notion is that you sense what is happening before you know that you do, and your body starts to react before you make sense of what you see.

The author explains how the mind does a kind of superfast rewind to convince itself that the subjective view of time is real -- and that the illusion seems real.