Tuesday, January 5, 2010

It's just like deja vu all over again!

"This time, ah'm really going to fahnd out where that ghostly music comes frahm!"
"You'll never do it Jethro, sure as anything someone'll come t'the door!"
"How did you know that Uncle Jed?"

Jed Clampett can predict the future!

[tic... tic... Klunk-tic... tic... thud-tic... tic... tic... tic... tictictictictictictic!]
"Ah here we go, train in two minutes."
"How did you know that?"

I can predict the future too, when I'm at Kooyong.

Rosuav: "Hey, what was that?"
Minigeek: "What was what?"
Stanley: [BZZZZZZZZZZ GROAN TICTICTICTICTIC TIC TIC TIC tic tic tic tic... tic... tic... tic-thump... silence]
Minigeek: "Hey, my database session has frozen!"
Rosuav: "Does that answer your question then?"

The Rosuav can predict the future too! What's going on here?

Depending on your culture and non-religious views on matters spiritual, you might call it Deja Vu (listeners are requested to add accent marks above letters according to taste), Extra-Sensory Perception or ESP, advance warnings from departed relatives who have been sent to protect you, or any of a mind boggling number of weird and wacky options.

If you have views of that kind, please do humanity a favour and throw them out the window. There's a much more plausible explanation for it all.

I'd like to put the proposition that the brain (even while its owner is sleeping) receives and processes a lot more information than it presents to the conscious mind. It filters out everything it deems unimportant, but it takes past experiences into account when deciding what's important and what isn't.

Let's go through some examples. I'll skip Jed Clampett's musical doorbell because I think we all know what happens when the lead-up circumstances are presented to the conscious mind.

Kooyong late at night
It's dark and cold, I've done a day's work and an evening's rehearsal, and I want to go home. I'm passing the time productively by either watching Traal play Spider Solitaire or reading Savoynet on my phone. But my subconscious brain is ticking down the time until the train is due, and as it gets closer it starts looking for the very faint buzz of activity from the control box, the pedestrian crossing opening for business, and the distant hum of the rails which indicate that a train is coming into range and will be here shortly. The signs gradually get stronger and more certain, and my brain alerts me just a few seconds before the level crossing bells and station PA start (the final and most certain signals).

What's curious is when they come early. My brain alerts me at an earlier stage in the proceedings - a nod to its knowledge that getting ready to gunzel (ie to record the details of an unusual train movement) takes longer than getting ready to travel.

I am loathe to contradict the BOFH himself, but I don't think it's a gene. It's another case of the brain knowing what's normal (and sorting out a myriad of sounds, smells, temperatures, forces etc to define what normal is) and alerting its owner when something is wrong.

One of the comments on the BOFH page I just linked to was very telling - "My head turns at the sound of only 4 beeps rather than 5 and it takes me a couple of seconds before I even know why my head's pointing down that particular corridor." So we can now say that, independently of its owner's consciousness, the brain will:
a) know what "normal" is
b) realise the current situation is abnormal
c) determine that the abnormality is a problem requiring attention, and
d) work out the location of the device which is having trouble, and direct the eyes that way to pick up additional information.

All this in the space of a few seconds - or usually less.

Waking at a determined time
I have often noticed that I wake up about 30 seconds before my alarm goes off. I have also noticed that even if my alarm is switched off, I wake up about ten minutes after the time I set it for. Why?

We can see from the examples above that the brain doesn't need conscious thought to detect the signs of an upcoming event requiring attention. I'd like to extend this to cover sleeping as well as thinking about something else.

Minor changes in temperature, light level, sound patterns etc will alert the brain to the fact that the world is starting to wake up. Therefore it must be about six o'clock. And hey, it was 1:21 when I went to bed and I feel like I've slept for about four and a half hours. All that adds up to - WAKE HIM UP!

Ooooh, I'd better go and get the washing in!
Just in case you think it's the stereotypical male 80s computer nerd brain that does all this, I can prove the stereotypical female 50s housewife brain does it too.

Clouds start to form, and the level of light changes. Some people just shift their position or turn on a light and go on with the newspaper. Others look up suddenly to see what exactly the weather might be doing. Temperature, humidity and air pressure change too - sometimes imperceptibly (to the conscious mind). Birds start making different sounds. All this, to the brain that Needs to Know, says that it's going to rain and the washing on the line will get wet.

Of course as everyone knows women and specifically mothers are really good at multitasking so this sort of thing is almost expected. But I say it just because I can.

Crackly packets!
In our family we have a theory that the sound of a plastic packet (as in, one full of jelly beans, mixed nuts, or anything else that tastes good and can be shared) being opened is louder than all other noises, no matter what the environment. Somehow when the sound starts the vultures gather in milliseconds.

Of course as everyone who has been reading this far knows, it's simply another case of the conscious mind telling the brain's base operating system "this sound matters a lot to me, let me know if you ever hear it".

So to conclude (this must be the shortest midga.blogspot.com post for a very long time!), I can only say - I have the greatest respect for brains.


Anonymous said...

To counter that:
It has actually been found that people act before the brain fires its signals; so you spend your life rationalising what you've already done, rather than planning out what you will do!
This means that your reactions are mostly reflex anyway, which explains how we can "predict the future".

Michael Angelico said...

So the brain is really a distributed system and most actual thought is done in the hands and feet rather than the head?