Wednesday, March 04, 2009


I've been watching Whedon's Dollhouse for the past three weeks. Enjoying it. It's a little slippery to get a grasp on a bunch of characters who are only tangentially related to each other, and whose common link is a girl who changes personality from one episode to the next. By the end of the third episode I realized that Echo is actually not on-screen that much; there are at least three concurrent plotlines developing, aside from the mission-of-the-week, and although they all revolve around Echo and the Dollhouse, the girl herself is more of a McGuffin than a character. There are hints that she will become a character, in time, but for now she's just a Magic Mitten that everybody wants to possess for their own assorted reasons.

Anyway, the SP and I were talking about Echo's fighting skills on the show, and although she is a small woman, not possessed of any superpowers, they program her brain with all these practical fighting skills, and they generally make them look feasible.

The SP said he didn't believe that imprinting somebody's brain with fighting skills would make them automatically able to fight--he says the body has to be trained, too.

I said first that I thought it was possible--the mind, after all, controls the body, and I know from experience that once I figure out a move in my head--i.e. juggling--I can do it with my hands.

But then I started thinking about how a trained athlete's muscles will develop additional nerve pathways to better react to the brain's signals. And I thought about the fine-tuning of small muscles I have seen in my own body. For instance, although I still know how to juggle, I am out of practice and clumsy. And although I still know how to sing--to position my throat and support from the diaphragm--my range will be rusty until I've practiced for a couple of weeks and recovered my old muscle tone.

Calligraphy, too--I've been thinking about it a lot lately, because the frustration I feel with my tai chi skills now is very like the old frustration I used to feel with a pen in my hand--why was it so hard to make my fingers do what my brain wanted them to do? And why wouldn't my brain stay with my fingers as they moved?

What do you think? If the brain had the knowledge, and knew it had the knowledge, would the body then follow? Or do the two have to be conditioned in tandem?


Anonymous said...

My conjecture is that the brain could be programmed, but then the body would need conditioning in order to process that programming. The brain may have the knowledge concerning how to deliver a strike, but the body must have the strength, the conditioning, to make the blow effective.
At this stage of the game, my conjecture must be pure hypothesis, since the programming in question has never been tried.

AJ Milne said...

My suspicion is that SG's roughly correct, but I'd add this: my view is there's probably really no clearcut border between the mind and the body. We have separate terms for the CNS (central nervous system) and the PNS (peripheral) in our language as a matter of convenience, but biology only lends itself to these distinctions somewhat approximately at best... So, in fact, there's no hard and fast division between body and mind, and the assumption that there is may be as much an artifact of rather creaky philosophical systems that imagined as much (like dualism) as a decent reflection of the physical reality...

So the practical ramifications of this are: if the SF technique imagined in the series assumes what's being changed by this 'programming' is something plastic in the brain itself, but restricted itself to only making modifications there, it wouldn't get you all the way from unschooled novice to seasoned fighter--indeed, it might even screw up your general kinaesthetic sense, make you more clumsy, rather than make you better attuned to what you can do with your body, to have someone download the patterns from a seasoned fighter into only the tissues north of your shoulder blades. Because I'd suspect those additional neural pathways in the PNS (which you note in the post) and the brain adaptations that allow you to fire them with precision and speed are actually probably rather tightly coupled parts of the same system in a real body...

So: give someone the brain of a fighter without passing along the muscles and the specific PNS configuration that brain is used to, and it might not help them much at all.

Holly said...

"give someone the brain of a fighter without passing along the muscles and the specific PNS configuration that brain is used to, and it might not help them much at all"

Yes--yes. This is kind of what I was thinking. When I first wrote this post I had a bit about how old students from kung fu class sometimes return for a short while and usually quit again because they are frustrated with their loss of ability--I think that is, in fact, the muscle/nerve connections eroding.

Anonymous said...

In my wild fantasies, I have my hero, or heroine, as the case may be, heal people of their infirmities, but in restoring sight, for instance, the healer not only repairs the eyes. He or she also conditions the neural pathways so that it is if the patient has always had sight.

Ah,but that is only in my fantasies.

Holly said...

"only in my fantasies"

Yes, but it does make a certain amount of sense. And another thing: sighted people move their eyes a great deal to focus. Think how flaccid the eye muscles would be if a person was blind all their lives.