I threw up a several times last week.
You know you’re obsessed with blogging when, as you throw up, you’re thinking of how to use the experience in a Mapping The Edge post!
Although virus cannot be ruled out, a key contributing factor to my “seasickness” was my new office, which includes several computers arranged along an L-shaped desk. As I work, I go back and forth between computers, working on engineering and art.
After repeated bouts of nausea from several hours in the new office, I checked everything with a level. Part of the desk was uneven, which meant that the computer screens were not level with each other. Apparently, hours of transitioning back and forth along an uneven sight line was enough to cause my equilibrium to become unhappy. My unhappy equilibrium. Sounds like an 80s band. I fixed the problem and haven’t thrown up since.
The brain is amazing in how much and how little it will tolerate. It functions in the most extreme conditions, yet make its world slightly askew and it can literally make you sick. If things get too far off-center, the brain can create its own set of realities as a coping mechanism. And I’m not even talking about split personalities.
Once in flight training, the instructor demonstrated the dangers of relying on our sense of direction instead of aircraft instruments by putting my friend in a spinning chair. My friend (oh let’s call him Mike, well, because that’s his name) was told to keep his arms against his knees, make two fists, and use his thumbs to indicate the direction of spin as he sensed it. His thumbs were to point either to the right or left to reflect a spin in that direction. Thumbs up meant that the chair was not spinning.
The instructor blindfolded Mike and inserted earplugs, so that Mike would rely only on his sense of motion. The instructor began to spin the chair to the right. Instantly Mike’s two upright thumbs pointed right, correctly indicating the chair’s direction of motion. So far so good.
The instructor narrated as he rotated the chair, saying that Mike’s brain was aware of the new normal of righthand motion and was correctly reacting to it. But before long, he said, Mike’s brain would adapt so that the spin condition would seem perfectly normal. At that time, he said Mike would sense that the spinning had stopped, even as the chair continued to spin.
As predicted, before long, Mike’s thumbs moved from right to straight up. The chair continued to spin rapidly in the same direction as when the experiment had started. Mike “felt” that he had stopped spinning because his brain had adapted to a new normal. I understood this, but what happened next was harder to grasp.
Then the instructor said for us to watch Mike’s thumbs when he brought him to a stop. He stopped the chair so that Mike was facing us. Instantly, Mike’s thumbs went from upright to full left. The blind and deaf subject was sitting completely still in an unspinning chair.
His brain had compensated to the change in motion by going from a new normal of stillness in a right-spinning world, to a newer normal of spinning left in a still world. He just sat there in an unmoving chair with his thumbs pointing all the way to the left, convinced of his own reality.
When the instructor removed the blindfold and ear plugs, we watched confusion in its purest form. Mike tried to comprehend the lack of motion, which was in direct conflict with every signal his brain was experiencing. The instructor told Mike to point to a clock hanging on the back wall.
Not only could he not point to the clock, but he could hardly find the back wall. His eyes were wide as he tried in vain to point where he wanted. His arm seemd to fight against forces generated by an imaginary spin. His upper body leaned so far over the left side of the chair that he almost fell out of the chair.
After several sickening and admittedly humorous minutes, my friend’s brain finally returned to his original normal state, which, let’s face it, had always been a good distance from the generic definition of the term normal.
I’m discovering that life is a fun house. No matter how carefully I take my next steps, I find myself stumbling across slanted floors and down angled steps. No matter how strongly I focus on what I think is ahead, all I see are reflections from a series of bent and distorted mirrors.
I second-guess my instincts and struggle in vain to point to the clock on the wall. I’m not flying in a plane now. I’m making art. I think I need the fun house effect as part of my creative process. Besides, I do my best work and sometimes my best living when I’m not trying to figure it all out in advance and not trying to make perfect art that must be confimed level at each phase. I’ve given myself permission to adapt my attitude to the new normal. Maybe you should do the same.
Within this new normal, we may find that sometimes water really does flow uphill and balls really do bounce up the steps. To this possibility I offer two thumbs up.