Your Thoughts Can Release Abilities beyond Normal Limits

This is an interesting piece at Scientific American on how our thoughts may expand/better our cognitive and physical limits:

Our cognitive and physical abilities are in general limited, but our conceptions of the nature and extent of those limits may need revising. In many cases, thinking that we are limited is itself a limiting factor. There is accumulating evidence that suggests that our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.

Can our thoughts improve our vision? We tend to believe that an essentially mechanical process determines how well we see. Recent research by Ellen Langer and colleagues suggests otherwise. It is a common belief that fighter pilots have very good vision. The researchers put people in the mindset of an Air Force pilot by bringing them into a flight simulator. The simulator consisted of an actual cockpit including flight instruments. The cockpit was mounted on hydraulic lifts that mimic aircraft movement and performance. People were given green army fatigues; they sat in the pilot’s seat, and performed simple flight maneuvers. They took a vision test while “flying” the simulator. A control group took the same vision test in the cockpit while the simulator was inactive. People’s vision improved only if they were in the working simulator.

To rule out the possible effect of motivation, the researchers brought another group of people into the cockpit and asked them to read a brief essay on motivation. After people finished reading, they were strongly urged to be as motivated as possible and try hard to perform well in the vision test. The test was conducted while the simulator was inactive. They did not show a significant improvement.

In an eye exam, we are used to start experiencing problems at the bottom third of the eye chart, where letters start to get small. In another experiment, Ellen Langer and colleagues showed people a shifted chart. At the top, it included letters equivalent to the medium-size letters on the normal eye chart and the chart progressed to letters of very small size at the bottom. Because people were expecting to read the top two thirds of the shifted chart as well, they were able to read much smaller letters.

Here is the paper in which this premise is made clear: vision can be improved by manipulating mind-sets.

This reminds me of this adage I first encountered in high school: “If you believe you can or can’t, you’re right.”

While the Women Are Sleeping

The best thing I read today was a short story in The New Yorker titled “While the Women Are Sleeping.” The story is by an author I haven’t heard of before: Javier Marías.

The story starts out with more questions than answers…

For three weeks, I saw them every day, and now I don’t know what has become of them. I’ll probably never see them again—at least, not her. Summer conversations, and even confidences, rarely lead anywhere.

It’s kind of an intriguing opening: who is them? What have they become? And summer conversations rarely lead to anywhere?

The story concerns a couple from Madrid vacationing on an island. While there, they observe another couple; the beautiful Inés, described as so:

She was beautiful, indolent, passive, and, by nature, languid. Throughout the three hours a day that we spent at the beach (they stayed longer, perhaps taking their siesta there and, who knows, staying until sunset), she barely moved and was, of course, concerned only with her own beautification

and her older, less attractive male companion named Alberto Viana. What the observing couple find remarkable (and so does the reader, no doubt) is that Alberto constantly, without interruption records Ines on video camera. The video camera has become an extension of him…

The story, admittedly, starts out slowly (I had to step away from reading it in the evening, and came back to it the following day)… But then it picks up and absolutely sucks you in. At least, it did for me. What could be so interesting about a guy videotaping his girlfriend? The answer is explained in the story, which begins with this conversation between the narrator and Alberto:

“I’ve noticed that you’re very keen on video cameras,” I said after that pause, that hesitation.

“Video cameras?” he said, slightly surprised or as if to gain time. “Ah, I see. No, not really, I’m not a collector. It isn’t the camera itself that interests me, although I do use it a lot. It’s my girlfriend, whom you’ve seen, I’m sure. I film only her, nothing else. I don’t experiment with it at all. That’s fairly obvious, I suppose.”

And the conversation picks up from there. What I find fascinating is our abilities to remember things; some go about life, cruising. Others write things down. Others photograph the world around them. This was an intriguing conversation between the narrator and Alberto Viana:

“You don’t have a camera? Don’t you like to be able to remember things?” Viana asked me this with genuine confusion.

“Yes, of course I do, but you can remember things in other ways, don’t you think? Memory is a kind of camera, except that we don’t always remember what we want to remember or forget what we want to forget.”

And still others prefer to record things on video, as Alberto explains to the narrator:

“How can you compare what you can remember with what you can see, with what you can see again, just as it happened? With what you can watch over and over, ad infinitum, and even freeze?

But there is something sinister (though arguably honest) in Alberto’s declaration…

I won’t say much more except that this is an incredible story of obsession, vision (literally and figuratively), memory, human misconceptions, life, and death. Shortly put, it is one of the best works of fiction I have read in 2010, so I highly recommend reading it.

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A hat tip to @etherielmusings for pointing out this story via Twitter.