Why slow motion seems majestic

There is much to be said about the memorability of slow motion footage in movies. While perhaps the most extreme recent example was the invention of “bullet time” in Matrix, and recently we have seen it taken to the extremes in Inception, the overcranking (shooting at higher framerate to later play it back at regular 24 fps) was the hallmark of cinematography ever since it was invented in 1904 by Austrian priest and physcist August Musger.

There is little doubt that slow motion footage for some reason does make the action seem more pronounced, more memorable, more impressive, and often more majestic.  Even though some cinematographers of note did tackle the reasons why slow motion has this certain effect, so far I have not found a convincing explanation in this field.

A possible insight into why slow motion might have this effect comes from the research on how people react under extreme stress: in combat, in sports, or in situations where one’s life is threatened. There exists a number of reactions that can happen to people in such situations. Alongside tunnel vision, selective deafness, there also is a perception of events occuring in slow motion. Most likely it is a result of the sudden flush of hormones like epinephrine, and the attempts of our brains to encode as much of what is happening as possible for future reference. Usually it is accompanied by the feeling of vividness, and awareness of being alive (this is also why such states of mind can become addictive, and life can seem pretty bland afterwards),  sometimes referred to as “hyper-reality”.

The important part is that the real slow motion effect in our brain is only an illusion, and the result of physiological processes of hastened memory creation. It does not grant the subject powers of Neo to dodge bullets, it only increases the awareness of occuring events. The reaction time remains as it is, even though the employed actions might be more efficient, than they would be in “normal time”.

However, it is highly probable, that our brain, when confronted with slow motion footage, takes it as a signal of something memorable happening, and tries to employ its standard procedure in such cases – trying to remember as much as it can, because it is an important, potentially life-threatening event. Due to the fact, that there is no hormonal rush, the effect is subsided, but it seems to have an impact nevertheless. How foolish of our brain to think so! And yet, we fall for the same trick again, and again. And slow-motion does work, even if used in excess.

Therefore, next time you see the slow motion footage employed to accentuate certain aspects of the action, or use this effect yourself, be aware that it works, because it references the state of mind that is already available to the viewer, and mimics what happens when our brains do firecely try to create a memorable event.

If readers are interested in further exploration of this topic, I suggest the book “On Combat” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, which has a great compilation of physiological effects that accompany events.

Is there a reality out there?

Human beings love stories. We thrive on them, they evoke our emotions and give us reason to live (or die for that matter). Stories are what give us sense and meaning.

Stories are also almost absolutely subjective, at least in terms of their final impact on individuals. The final act of every creation—stories included—happens in the mind of the recipient, and it is the stage upon which the storyteller has no control at all. It is the sum of our experiences that does decide what our perception of the story will be. Therefore there are as many variants of a single story, as there are people on the planet. And from this perspective, who is to say which story is better?

This kind of reasoning brought us the idea of post-modernism, where even the concept of reality itself begun to be treated as subjective to one’s interpretation, and wholly dependent on one’s point of view. In its peak, this philosophy proposed that we in fact create the very reality by our mental processes, and that by changing the way in which we think and perceive the outside world we can totally remake it, because it is nothing more than a narrative. It also proposed the ultra-egalitarianism, postulating absolute equality of everybody’s view of the world.

I’ll spare you the paradoxes of post-modernistic philosophies, and listing the flaws of this kind of unfortunately quite prevalent magical thinking, but there is one thing that I personally can’t ignore. The uber-egalitarianism proposes that science is “just another piece of storytelling”, and that it has no special claim on saying what’s real, and what’s not. This point of view saddens me, especially when it is voiced by famous psychotherapists or people who really should know better.

This statement is very, very incorrect. While I absolutely agree that each of us creates their own inner picture of reality, and then by our actions we can influence the outside world, sometimes even make an important contribution towards some big changes, it is by no means equal to creating the outside reality, or to claiming that there is no objective reality at all.

There exist certain rules that every atom in the universe does seem to follow. These rules can be discovered by systematic observation, and they even can be described with the use of an abstract language of mathematics. Even such seemingly chaotic and stochastic systems like weather can be described with certain probability, and with certain “resolution”.  It is amazing that we were able to create the semantics which allows us to predict the events that do happen “randomly”, like radioactive decay for example. Of course, not the course of every single one of them can be described—they are truly random in such sense—but their general, statistical behavior is quite well established, enough for building reliant nuclear reactors or medical imaging devices.

Such is our advancement in this kind of observation that it allows us to build tools like GPS which take into account the space-time curvature, and relativistic lengthening of time, or tackle the idea of quantum computing. We are so certain of the laws that govern the universe, that in our arrogance we create amazing things that rely on these laws to function properly. And they do work. There are laws in the universe that we can all rely upon.

These laws do not care who you are, where you live, whether you are a human-being, an amoeba, or a piece of anti-matter. They do not care about your life story. They are identical for everyone and everything, the true example of uber-egalitarianism. As such, these laws are the reality: the objective reality, ever-present for everyone and everything in the same way. And science is the process that seeks to discover and describe these laws. Therefore to dismiss it as “yet another storytelling device” is a mark of ignorance or a sad lack of understanding of what this process entails.

To be fair, science is messy, and mathematics is an abstract language that—sadly—not very many people know or even want to learn. Science does involve at first noticing some observations (which are objective, repeatable facts), and then trying to come up with some kind of abstract description that will allow prediction of future behavior of the observed system. This part happens in an objective reality. The problems might start when one has to translate or interpret the findings.

All our “natural” languages are inherently imprecise, and are a product of our daily experience and the environment that we live in. We have problems translating ideas that fall out of such experience, because we lack proper frame of reference to convey the true meaning of elaborate equations—equations that are very precise, and leave little room for debate. We have to resort to metaphors to describe constructs like electron cloud, which are described without fault by mathematical equations, but can never be properly described with the use of common words. Such attempts of passing the knowledge to “uninitiated” are prone to misunderstandings, and superficiality, as we can witness for example with the idea of an “observer” in quantum mechanics. For some reason people started associating the act of localizing an electron (measurement) with the presence of some kind of consciousness observing the act, sparkling a lot of shallow, misguided philosophical speculations. This is the limit of metaphors, and there are things lost or added in translation. Such is the nature of telling stories—their authors have almost no influence on how they will be understood.

In the end science does indeed tell stories that are supposed to help us make sense of this world that we live in. The difference is that the stories being told are based on the most fundamental aspects of repetitive, and reliable objective reality, a translation from very precise language of mathematics into our limited, poetic language of everyday life. These stories are not made up. They might be better or worse translations, but what they describe is real.

Some people seem to be offended by the word “objective”, and prefer using “consensus” instead. I think it is a misnomer. The laws do not care about our consent. Even though there exists a substantial subjective element to how things are explained, interpreted and understood, the facts, and the laws themselves remain reliably unchanged. There is an objective reality out there, and we’re relying on it in all our activities every day, especially now, when you are reading these words. :)

Thanks to these laws, we are alive, and can go on telling our stories in a manner that is most convenient for us 😀

Maintenance can be creative work as well

Up until recently I had not realized this simple truth: things do decay, and to maintain their functionality one has to expend energy, sacrifice time and put an actual effort into it. I think this is one of these fundamental truths that can be applied in general to life, universe and everything. If left unattended, the entropy will take its course, and the things will die.

Maintenance is one of this kind of jobs which when performed properly is invisible. Like a good matchmove or a good cut. Maintenance allows the action (life) to move forwards smoothly and without glitches. As such, in accordance to the old adage “out of sight, out of mind”, it is often under-appreciated and ignored until an accident happens.

Indeed, it is not as flashy as any “creative” work, and its results are never direct. But come to think of it, hardly any creative work can be done when tools are not prepared, not working correctly, or broken. Of course, overcoming such problems can be a creative endeavor in itself, but the satisfaction is usually left only for the person dealing with the problem, and will most likely be lost on the recipients of the work that was done, possibly hindering the results. The work might of course bear some signs of the problem in question, making it perhaps unique in its own way, and it is the sign of true mastery to turn problems into creative opportunities. But even in such cases the newly developed process needs to be streamlined and maintained.

I have always seen maintenance as dull job that needs to be done. Backups, cleanups, servicing – they all ate away the time that could have been used for “the proper work” or leisure. I did not appreciate that such jobs also do require creativity, if only to solve the annoyances of software glitches, hardware incompatibilities and such. Thinking about the safest and optimal workflow or proper hardware configuration is a job in itself, a job that requires knowledge, research, time, and also some economic sense. It is also a very important art of differentiating the wants (everybody wants the best tools available) from the actual needs (the productivity gains from faster computers tend to flatten out beyond certain point). This kind of fine-tuning, and deep analysis is what can be very rewarding, especially if you come up with some clever way to solve a complicated problem.

Of course, there is no way to absolutely avoid real accidents, and to foresee everything. The loss of HDCAM SR factory during recent events in Japan is perhaps something that very few people were really prepared for. But proper studio maintenance would give you at least some time window to prepare plan B for archiving and delivery.

This kind of philosophy can be applied to any aspect of life. By working I provide means for my family to exist and grow. Even if most of my current salary goes towards maintaining what already exists, hardly allowing for investments, there is a certain satisfaction of providing the base so that the others can employ their energy in a better way.

Similarly in relationships, after the obvious novelty wears off, maintenance is often under-appreciated, and can lead to perception of boredom. We need to remember, that our brains are hardwired for novelty, and we get the most dopamine and endorphine rush from new challenges and new “stuff” (this is perhaps why shopping works for many people as a mood raiser). Tweaking and fine-tuning is usually tedious. It is hard to appreciate the things that you do have, when there are so many things that you could have had, if you only worked harder, more or in another job.

And yet, taking time to maintaining what you have is essential for not loosing it, whatever “it” may be. Since this is the case, I might as well take time to enjoy it :)

Have a good day.

Synchronicity and confirmation bias – a difference

And now for something completely different.

The concept of synchronicity is quite simple – it is a subjective feeling that two events are meaningfully related. For example, I look for information on problem A, then in my spare time I listen to an overdue issue of a biotech podcast that happens to have guests from a virology podcast, which I then decide to check out, and I find out that a new episode of this second podcast has the answer to my problem A in it. Amazing synchronicity – I found a solution for a problem not looking for it, and in a place that I would have not expected it. It feels meaningful for me, and gives me a lot of joy. Another example – I talk about effects of sword cuts with friends, and then suddenly a person from another side of the globe who is not involved in this discussion sends me on Facebook his pictures of the test-cutting that he did this day, and that illustrate precisely the point I was trying to make in a discussion. Wow! What are the odds of that?

However, from an objective standpoint synchronicity is simply a coincidence. Regardless of how meaningful this event is for me, for other people there is no such connection. Unless they share my belief system, or I manage to convince them otherwise. But in general, people not involved in solving problem A will look at the virology podcast, they will not get butterflies in their belly, and will say that there is nothing unusual about it. And from their perspective they are right.

Synchronicities, when they happen, really do add meaning to our lives, and push us into the state of mind closer to “being in the zone”. That is if we allow them to do it. They might create an impression, that there is an invisible hand that guides our destiny, and lead us forward, making the life easier and lighter. Why not use this to our advantage? Life without synchronicities is tiresome, boring, and gray. Synchronicity provides me with a moment of awe and wonder, in which I can immerse myself, take a deep breath, and appreciate life more. Screw objectivism, this feels good! And it makes a great story as well! (Which is probably why it feels this way, but it’s another matter entirely).

But then, don’t overdo it. If you start actively looking for synchronicities, then you are actually employing a strategy to find meaning, where there is none. This strategy is called confirmation bias. You know there is a meaning, and you are simply looking for signs to confirm your preconceived idea. What you find can give you peace of mind (or sometimes a headache, if you happen to find something you weren’t looking for), but in the end you are only deluding yourself, and chasing dreams and shadows of meaning, not the real meaning itself. Stop. Cease and desist.

The trick is not to be too active but observant and open to new experiences, and surprises. Synchronicities do happen. But their only magic is in our heads. Embrace the magical moment of inner realization, and don’t make the mistake of trying to enter the same river twice. This is not going to happen. Move on, wait for another day and another miracle.

Life happens to be beautiful. From one synchronicity to the next.

Human heuristics

Some argue, that we should live our lifes in a rational way, calmly and dispassionately analyzing pros and cons of each situation. While perhaps this is a noble ideal, it is also impossible to attain, and even those people who advocate such way of life are subject to a few quirks and limitations of our minds and brains.

Here are a few important examples that each of us should remember:

  1. It is very hard, if not impossible, to separate our thinking about things into risk and benefit. The general rule of thumb that we employ is that when we consider something to be beneficial, we tend to undervalue the risks associated with it, either ignoring them, diminishing or rationalizing, and vice versa. If a thing can be both beneficial and risky (like nuclear energy for example), it proves to be a hard issue for us to swallow, and analyze.  Perhaps many emotions are the result of this conflict that we consciously or unconsciously perceive.
  2. We have a bias for novelty. New things are inherently more interesting than the old, common, and known ones. In this day and age this imperfection is really starting to become a hindrance, and getting caught in the endless cycle of news is so easy with our smartphones, tablets, RSS readers and such. Heck, I often can’t even finish reading one book not thinking about all others that stand on the shelves around.
  3. Also, a similar variation of previous bias is the one for uncommonality – if a thing is rare, it catches our attention much quicker, than if it is common. Media are a good example on the manifestation of this rule. In connection to our inability of assessing risks and understanding big numbers, it proves a real challenge to obtain a view on reality that is… well… as close to “real” as possible.
  4. We have a bias for finding patterns, even if there are none. Which is totally understandable, but it makes our lifes more difficult if we want to actually know what is true, and what isn’t. It’s even worse when we are looking for an invisible agent in places, where there doesn’t have to be one. It might be fun (or scary), it makes a great story (and we are suckers for good stories, I tell you), but it “ain’t exactly real”, as one famous singer put it.
  5. Confirmation bias plays well into the bias for searching patterns. Once we think up of a possible pattern, it is easier and more “natural” to look for the evidences proving our idea, than to come up with those that disprove it. Reading a balanced article can actually increase our bias, instead of reducing it. It takes a lot of courage to think about possibility of myself being wrong.
  6. Anchoring. Our brain focuses on the first thing that comes to its attention, and uses it for future reasoning, even if the thing has nothing to do with the problem at hand. It is a great feature helping us to process complex problems, and to arrive at conclusions in some sort of sensible time, but in a distracting environment, such conclusions can be totally unwarranted. And we fall for anchoring each and every time – there is no way to defend from it, even if we try to compensate for it! Beware of marketers that ask you seemingly innocen questions at the beginning of your conversation, especially any numbers. It is a trap. Run like hell! :)

What’s good about it all is that we slowly start to understand the role that emotions play in our decision making, and shaping our view of the world. They are crucial, cannot, and should not be eliminated – they are what makes us going through life. But at the same time, it is vital to be aware of one’s weak and blind spots. Because we all do have them in abundance.