JOHN MEANEY

30.12.05

TEMPUS FUGIT...

... or, TRUST THE AMYGDALA (but only when you're an expert)!

So how about time, then? The rate at which it flows... or does that make sense? Against which background, within which context, can time itself be said to flow? And at what rate, exactly? One second per second? Huh?

Those advanced NLP guys use hypnotic techniques to alter the perceived rate at which time passes, and that makes sense. Now I know that's possible, I've allowed my thoughts and respiration to slow right down while waiting for time to pass. I'll let you know if I can make the opposite happen in the dojo, and get the world (i.e. opponents) to move in slow motion.

One of the novels I've read this week is set in a small Virginia town -- the small-town mystery novel being the US equivalent of cozy British middle-class whodunnits, neither one being a favourite sub-genre of mine. Of the 12 or 15 characters in the book, 3 turned out to be murderers, and none of the other characters found that strange. Duh... The 700-page book spanned several days in the shallow life of the story. Next I read Ian McEwan's Saturday, in which it took 20 pages for the protagonist to get out of bed, stand at the window staring out, and then walk back to the bed. (I preferred the McEwan, big time.) At the beginning of the week, I read John Irving's Until I Find You, which does something rather startling that no other novel I've read quite manages. I didn't think I was going to enjoy it as much as I ended up doing. And that novel spans over three decades in the main character's life.

Interesting, isn't it?

Two of the more interesting books I've read this year have been Steven Johnson's review of contemporary neuroscience, Mind Wide Open, and Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, being a review of the way the unconscious mind reacts, undermining the conscious layers. Gladwell took a neat computerized test which revealed his unconscious bias against coloured people, even though only one of his own parents was white. Ha. And he explores two situations in which cops either shot or deliberately did not fire upon a suspect -- we're talking times when things happen far too fast for the conscious personality to make rational decisions. From earlier reading in neuroscience I already knew that electrical potential changes sweep through the brain one third of a second (at least) before the conscious mind believes it has made an instantaneous decision.

In a physical altercation, one third of a second can be the difference between life and death. If the only fights you've ever experienced have been in the movies, you've no idea... One of my friends had read (in novels) about the uselessness of high kicks in fighting, because you can just grab the leg if someone kicks you. Then he saw a video clip of me training, and said: "Er, I didn't realize you could move that fast..."

Yer typical Jean Claude van Damme movie -- absolute dreck -- shows one technique being thrown every second. Try watching a boxing match instead. (As for high kicks in a real fight... they're hugely effective, but only for a tiny, tiny percentage of people. Yet you can use the same style of whipping kick into a person's thigh and drop them.)

Speaking of self defence... most martial artists can't fight their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag. Most dojos nowadays are safe learning environments where kids can go and not get hurt. That's a good thing for people who start off as unaggressive, unathletic non-fighters. (Contrast this to a boxing gym.) The problem comes if you fail to graduate to a hardcore dojo... Five percent of martial artists can REALLY fight, and most of those know how to avoid trouble in the first place.

There are people like Geoff Thompson and Peter Consterdine in the UK, and Marc MacYoung and Peyton Quinn in the US, who can teach the difference between martial arts and self defence (like situational awareness to avoid danger, like knowing the psychological signs -- maybe an aggressive person whose speech mutates into single-word sentences -- that mean it's no longer possible to avoid the attack).

And MacYoung has also written about the role of the amygdala.

As Steven Johnson writes, memory appears to be stored in the cortex, but accessed via the amygdala (the high-speed connection for the unconscious mind) or the hippocampus (for conscious access). In other words, the unconscious has broadband, but the cognition you're aware of uses dial-up... Memory links into behaviour patterns that are more complex than reflex, yet need fast processing that bypasses the slow meanderings of consciousness. Phobias (and Steven Johnson writes about his own) can be triggered by reminders of REAL danger that are inappropriate because the response is too generalized or distorted. A child might experience a treacherous sea and then over-compensate by fearing all water... The point is, this happens unconsciously.

Other recent research indicates that the memory storage process, known as potentiation, may work such that whenever you access a memory, you rewrite it at the molecular level.

I believe that therapists work at uncovering past trauma for the sake of understanding (and therefore cure), and that most of them decry the NLP approach of attenuating bad memories (very fast) as a case of curing the symptom, not the disease. Yet during the Great Plague, fever-stricken sufferers often died of simple deyhdration, because it was the symptom that was deadly... And neuroscientists now seem to argue that dredging up bad memories ain't the right way. Interesting. (And the NLP presupposition is that inappropriate behaviour stemmed from a circumstance where it originally served some form of positive purpose. I interpret this to mean that eating some chocolate to get a sugar boost might have helped me through a stressful situation, but if my amygdala then leads me to comfort-eat consistently, I end up with health problems.)

So what were Gladwell's conclusions regarding cops who either shot down an unarmed suspect or held back when most people would have shot, believing themselves to be in mortal danger? The answer is, you should your trust your intuition... but ONLY if you're an expert in the field.

See, that amygdala-route access can really trip you up, and fear creates the fastest access of all. Gladwell talks of big research teams who consciously analysed a supposed antiquity, and decided it was genuine... then some art experts felt it didn't look right as soon as they saw it. None of them could say consciously why the piece felt (or smelled, or looked) wrong... but something about it made them uncomfortable. They were right.

In writing, Roger Zelazny once said that, as you're developing a story, you might see a sensible, proper way for it to proceed... or some unconscious demon might deliver to your consciousness some crazy, wild, insane idea. And he said: Always trust your demon.

He was an expert.

So, what else have I read recently? This afternoon I read Light on Snow by Anita Shreve. That's probably classified as a bit of a girlie book, but literary. It brought a tear to my eye, and on that basis (and more) I'm voting it my favourite of my recent reads. Most excellent.

If time seems to be slipping away, and if it's your health and well-being you're thinking of... for anyone who wants to drop weight forever, I recommend Paul McKenna's I Can Make You Thin, and to add exercise to the mix, try Matt Furey's Combat Conditioning. But you probably knew that. You want to sort out the rest of your life, Dr McKenna's got a book for that too.

I can't really nominate a favourite SF read this year, not in a fair way, because there are too many books I haven't read yet. Think I'll try one of Dr Reynolds' next... I adored the stylish 9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Charles Stross is producing excellent books at an amazing rate... speaking of time flowing at variable speeds! Among thrillers, Barry Eisler's Killing Rain was number one for me, even though there was a new James Lee Burke this year: the wonderful Crusader's Cross. (And I wonder what he's going to write about New Orleans in future books.)

Oh, and speaking of time again... If you want to learn a new language in hours, you might want to check out the Michel Thomas courses. They're amazing.

The next year will be great. Limitations are largely imaginary. Let's just go for it, Pilots!

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