Saturday, 26 January 2013

Little Joys of Discovery #3: More Adventures in Neuroscience

     I was always puzzled as to why soldiers standing at attention are trained to lock their gazes straight ahead, especially in the case of the guards outside Buckingham Palace, who are famous for staring straight ahead despite any distraction tourists may offer. It always seemed to me that an alert guard should be scanning the whole field of view constantly, not simply staring at a single spot.
     Just recently, I found myself thinking about this while waiting for my wife to complete a transaction at the market, and I decided to try it out. I picked a spot on the wall and stared at that spot, and sure enough, it was hard to stay focussed, especially when someone walked in front of that spot.
     But then I tried something else. I tried to pay attention instead to my peripheral vision, all the other things that were going on in my field of view besides the spot right in front of me. Taking in the entire picture, noting the presence and movement of everything, rather than trying to pick out the specific details that we look for when we focus on something.
     And suddenly, I began to understand why the guards might be trained to stand at attention that way. Turns out, my field of view spans almost a full 180 degrees! So by attending to the entire image, I can actually monitor more targets than if I were to focus on just the portion on or near the fovea (the part of the retina at the very back which gives the most detail). What's more, while I couldn't make out much detail on anyone in particular, I was surprised to notice just how much I was able to fill in even without that detail. We humans read each other's body language very well, for the most part; I could tell that the tall person in the blue coat to my right was probably looking at his cell phone, without losing sight of my wife in her red coat to my left. My situational awareness felt much keener, studying the entire scene this way, which is precisely what you want in a guard.
      Interestingly, I also realized that this would go a long way to explaining why it's so difficult for tourists to distract the guards by flashing their breasts or other such silliness. (Not that anyone flashed their breasts at me at the market. And I think I would have noticed.) I found that since my attention was actually spread more or less evenly across my field of view, things happening right in front of me were easier to dismiss. That is, I didn't exactly ignore it when someone walked in front of me and lingered for a bit, obscuring my view of the letter "E" on the sign I had been gazing towards. I knew they were there, of course, and what they were doing more or less; I just had so many other things going on in my field of view that the person who happened to be front and center didn't monopolize my attention. Also, because I was now tracking my field of view based on the positions of things at the periphery, I didn't need to remain locked on the letter "E" to maintain a steady gaze.
     It also occurred to me that there's another reason why this kind of attention is useful for certain kinds of guards. Someone who is intently scanning like a searchlightback and forth may be better able to pick out fine details and identify anomalies, but they have bigger blind spots. Worse, those blind spots are more identifiable, and can be exploited. If you watch a scanning sentry, you may be able to tell when his attention is focused on the far end of his field of view, and use that opportunity to creep forward. A guard who stands, eyes fixed straight ahead, is much harder to read. What's more, the straight-ahead gaze is perhaps better adapted to pick up movement.

     I did some modest web searching, to see if there are any documents about why guards stand at attention this way, but haven't found anything to confirm my theory. It makes sense to me, and my informal experiments seem to support it, but really it's just conjecture on my part. As always, discussion is welcome int he comments section.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Morning People and the Night People

     The morning people and the night people never could see eye to eye. At last they decided to try to work out a compromise, so they each picked a representative and told them to work out a way that we could all live together in peace, and to be ready to implement it by noon the next day.
     The morning person got an early start, and began preparing a list of possible proposals, and at noon, when the night person was awake and ready to work, they began the negotiations.
     It did not go well. The morning person would propose a schedule with an early start to the day, which would invariably be rejected by the night person, who wouldn't even listen seriously to the morning person's arguments, which the night person thought were just rationalizations made up on the spot to justify the morning person's ridiculous proposal. After all, the night person assumed (as night people are wont to do) that the morning person was just a slightly-earlier-in-the-evening person, and didn't realize that the morning person had actually been up for many hours, thinking very carefully about her arguments.
      It was thus a very frustrating afternoon for the morning person. They haggled and haggled for hours, each arguing passionately for why it was healthier or more efficient or morally superior to get up or go to bed at this time or that time. At last, as the morning person was growing too sleepy to continue, they tentatively agreed to an imperfect compromise to submit as their solution, if they couldn't come up with something better by the deadline. They wrote down the provisional schedule, and the morning person went to bed.
     The night person, however, stayed up pondering. She considered all the arguments that the morning person had offered for an early start, and realized that most of them were actually valid, and she began to appreciate that morning people really do get up very early in the morning, not just a few minutes earlier than night people do. She regretted dismissing the morning person's arguments as mere rationalizations. But she also realized that her own arguments for sleeping in late and working after the sun set were equally sensible. Unfortunately, the compromise solution they had drawn up ignored all of these very good reason reasons, and gave only the worst of both worlds. It was a terrible approach, now that she thought about it.

     And then, suddenly, it hit her. There was a way to design a schedule for living that would give both sides everything they wanted and more. Morning people would be able to make the most of their early-morning vigor and productivity, and night people would be able to maximize their own momentum, getting things done efficiently, and everyone would be able to achieve and share their greatest creativity, regardless of when they naturally went to bed. The idea she came up with was very simple, but very subtle, and would take a lot of work to get just right, or it wouldn't work at all. She picked up a pencil and a ream of paper, and dove in.
      It was 4:30 in the morning when she finished. She had checked and rechecked her work, and satisfied herself that it was as close to the ideal solution as any human mind could generate. Smiling wearily, she tore up the no longer needed compromise solution, wrote a quick note to explain what she had done, tidied up and went to bed.

    An hour later, the morning person finished brushing her teeth and scowled at the lazy night person, snoring loudly in a corner. She still resented not being taken seriously for most of the previous day's argument, and assumed (as morning people are wont to do) that the night person was really just a later-in-the-morning person, and had probably gone to bed only a few minutes later than she had herself. The morning person picked up the note on the table, and looked it over, unimpressed. A brand new schedule, slapped together hastily after she'd gone to bed? That can't be serious! And it's got some people sleeping through most of the day! Did the night person not pay any attention at all to her arguments for why it's better to get up early? And she'd even thrown away the compromise!
     Fortunately, the noon deadline was still several hours away. The morning person poured herself a cup of coffee and got to work, drafting up a proper schedule that would have people waking up and working when they were supposed to wake up and get to work, one that didn't cater to the lazy, shiftless people who spend all their time sleeping and leave everyone else to do all the work. She finished it at 11:30, with half an hour to spare thanks to her bright and early start, and put it into the envelope to be submitted, and looked again over at the night person, still sleeping in the corner. Shaking her head with contempt, she went off to submit the solution.

     And that is why we all have to be at school at 8:00 in the morning.