Articolo Quinta Colonna (December 2016 - previously unpublished)

Ode to the Orbitofrontal Cortex

In 1982 a man called Elliot walked into the office of neurologist Antonio Damasio. He was recovering from an operation that had removed a small tumour from the frontal lobe of his brain. His IQ was unaffected, and yet when, at the end of the visit, Dr Damasio asked him to chose a date for his next appointment between two alternative days, Elliot spent the next half hour enumerating reasons for and against each of the two dates, including possible meteorological conditions, effects on future engagements, cost-benefit balance, etc. It must have taken Dr Damasio enormous self control not to hit him over the head with his stethoscope.

Now watch the last point of the Women Sabre Olympic final: the two Russians are fighting it out all by themselves (as they have the same coach, he's not allowed on the piste). At 14 all, Velikaya  stops her attack to draw Egorian's counter: she knows she can parry anything her opponent may throw at her, so she just has to wait in tierce (even more so as Egorian is left handed). But then, the epiphany: Egorian's blade drops past Velikaya thus disappearing from her view, and flicks backward, unparriable. Velikaya never saw it coming, literally. She reacts with a long quinte+reposte  but Egorian's blade simply isn't there.

How did Egorian manage to come up with and execute such a plan in less than a second and a half, all the while keeping ready to defend herself from possible counterattacks from her opponent? Sabre bouts are so fast, the judges don't even bother starting the clock, that keeps displaying '3:00' throughout the match even in Olympic finals! It is inconceivable that Egorian may have opted for that solution after carefully parsing Velikaya's movements into neat chains of causation ('if she does this, then I'll do that'). And this is not so just because it looks so, it can be demonstrated numbers in hand.

A typical hit may take around 0.7 seconds to travel from the moment a fencer decides to finish an attack, all the way to the opponent's body. Unfortunately for you, if you decide to defend, it takes about 0.25 seconds for you to initiate a parry (or any response mouvement), leaving you with less than half a second to make up your mind as to where to parry. And even this estimate is too generous, as it doesn't take into account the actual execution time (quite high for certain fencers I know, used to chocking on thought), or, on the invisible side of things, the few milliseconds for the visual information to travel from the object in front of you to your eye (admittedly, that's the speed of light, but it is time nevertheless); and then from the retina to the visual cortex, and from there, right at the back of the brain, to the orbitofrontal cortex where the information is processed and the decision made whether to parry or not, and where.

So how is fencing at all possible? Or tennis for that matter, or saving a penalty. The answer lies in a single molecule called dopamine. A lot of the neurons that communicate using this transmitter are located, you guessed it, in an area right at the back of your eyes, the orbitofrontal cortex, the area that was damaged by Elliot's tumour. They are decision making neurons, and the orbitofrontal cortex is the part of the brain that integrate visceral emotions into the decision making process. When a fencer 'feels' drawn towards one parry rather than another, the brain has already made up its mind, assessed the alternatives and converted the assessment into a positive emotion for the chosen parry, and a negative one for the ones that are not selected ('emotion', 'motivation' and 'movement' have the same latin root, 'movēre', which means 'to move').

'Paganini knew it well, that the devil is lefthanded (and sly), and plays the violin'. Egorian is lefthanded, and we know that the right hemisphere of our brain is particularly good at generating the extemporaneous associations that lead to epiphanies. But it's not all innate, of course, reactions can be trained (to quote Louis Pasteur, 'Chance favours the prepared mind'). Through training, experience is internalized by the dopamine system, and the result is a person who responds very quickly to a given situation.

Among the dopamine cells, there are also some neurons that learn to start firing in anticipation for something else (the bell for Pavlov's dogs, a flicker of the hand for a fencer). With exposure, this chain of reactions can extend indefinitely, with dopamine neurons responding to the movement of the foot, that signals the extending of the arm that signals the rotating of the hand, etc., which is most certainly what allowed Egorian to make such a quick decision (together with the fear of being sent back to Armenia to live as a social outcast and traitor to the Russians).

The crucial aspect of this process (anticipation, not defection) is that it is completely unconscious and totally emotional. Contrary to what Plato liked to think, human beings are not guided by pure reason, the charioteer cannot control the black horse. The famous XIX century neuroscientist William James got much closer to the truth when he wrote that 'the preponderance of habits, instincts and emotions' is what makes the human brain so effective. Hume, a long time before him, had already declared, with heretical delight, that reason is 'the slave of passions'. Elliot could not figure out what to do because his neurological impairment denied him the emotional sting of doing the wrong thing, the unnerving disappointment connected with losing, as well as the thrill that goes with success.

With time, thou shalt learn to read intentions by the light of the moon, and afford to be wise after the event. It's all chemistry, my fellow fencers, all chemistry.




Articola Quinta Colonna (Novembre)

A good thing about doing sport is that one has lots of erotic dreams. The good thing about having lots of erotic dreams is self evident. And yet it is also a very well known fact that these dreams are rarely fully satisfying. Is that latent dissatisfaction the reason why we always tend to go back for more?

It makes good evolutionary sense that dreams shouldn't completely appease. No matter how good one's power for visualization is, internally generated images can never actually be a substitute for the real thing: as Shakespeare put it, you cannot “cloy the hungry edge of appetite by bare imagination of a feast”. If you could make yourself feel full by thinking of a plate of spaghetti carbonara, you would never bother to get up and go hunting for bacon. But why after sport in particular?

It doesn't make sense, especially for those who were born bankrupt: you lose the match, waste a lot of energy in the process, nobody asks you out (because you are a loser), and then you make a fool of yourself by dreaming the impossible while wasting more calories. And then you go back for more of the same next week. Is it possible instead that we find such talents as doing some sport or other to be attractive in others, because they serve as an externally visible signature of good genes? A marker for a superior product, a sort of 'truth in advertising'. That would mean that it is not actually our own activity that causes the dreaming, but the memory of our sport mates (oh-la la).

The answer is much less contorted. Evolution has no foresight (or hindsight, for that matter). Ultimately it makes no difference to the brain how our reward pathways are activated, as long as they are activated. The desire to be successful (and therefore attractive), the need to follow rituals, to fight, are driven by the same neural activity whether one wins or loses, as long as one fights: the brain uses a carrot-and-stick system to ensure that we pursue and achieve the things we need to survive and spread our genes. The famous four “f”s of our survival instinct: flee, fight, feed or fornicate.

In this way a stimulus from the outside (your opponent) is registered by the limbic system which creates an urge that is consciously acknowledged as desire to whack him/her. However, sport has developed in society not in the environment where we evolved, and therefore requires suprainstinctual application of reasoned deliberation and willpower. That's why, most of the times, a bout does not proceed unchecked toward a murderous frenzy. The brain knows about these supraregulations but doesn't like them.

The activity that follows the feeling of aggression sends messages back to the limbic system which releases opioid-like neurotransmitters which in turn raise circulating dopamine which create a feeling of satisfaction. Or dissatisfaction. In both cases, the loop is activated and does not stop when one goes to bed, because it is here that the brain will try to accommodate one's primeval instincts to modern social dictates.

To the brain, it makes no difference: suddenly deprived of the outside sensory stimulus, in the absence of temporal and spatial limitations (not to speak of the general ugliness of reality) the brain picks up where it left when it was awake and takes it to its logical evolutionary conclusion: hallucinatory mating. The inevitable distortions of a re-play in absentia then make us creative, and et voila': your sexy dream.

Hasta la victoria, companeros. Siempre.


Articolo Quinta Colonna (Ottobre)

In a famous Italian war song, soldier Piero is walking on the frozen Alpine slopes when he sees a man in the distance. A man who is carrying the very same gloomy thoughts as Piero is, but who is wearing a uniform of a different colour. The singer's voice incite Piero to shoot him quickly: If you're quick, he won't even realize he's dying, sings the song. Yes, replies Piero, But I'll have the time to see the eyes of a dying man. The hesitation proves fatal: the enemy soldier sees Piero and doesn't return the courtesy.

The song is not very famous, at least not outside Italy, but the underlying paradox of human benevolence is as old as humanity itself. How could the human mind evolve to such a point as to create a special instinct for social exchange or even empathy? Game theory tries to create mathematical models to explain the combinatorial rules of this ancient syntax. Fencing plays them out.

To what point is it beneficial to me not to hit you? And if I don't, will you hit me in turn? These opposing impulses are inseparables from the body in which they are felt: they are also the base for engagement. Distance yields detachment, and yet it also creates the necessity for fast mind reading: this is the very base for empathy, even if it comes, like in fencing, from the edges of awareness.

Reading your opponent enables you to exploit and use. But it also has the opposite effect: in total contrast, it makes us able to empathize with them, as we see them as beings like ourselves. It is non verbal communication at its highest. It is also why fencing is so emotionally demanding: it requires the most subtle unconscious perceptions to govern our reactions, as well as synchronously match them with the appropriate measure of control. And all of this within 300-400 milliseconds, at levels beneath awareness. How Machiavellian is that?


Articolo Quinta Colonna (Aprile)

Illuminate me

How do you do it? You, who are outside my head. And especially you, at the other end of the piste. Do you just wait for something to spring to mind... something intelligible. Or a music... Or is there a rule you consciously follow in order to generate the required move? Do you wait for the question to force your unconscious to answer? How long can you wait?

En garde: Consciousness, mind I don't wonder off. Ready: What will I do if she/he does what I think she/he may do if she/thinks that I'm going to try to do what she/he... Fence: Zut! She's gone again.

One thing is clear to me: attempting to control the direction of a bout seems to be counterproductive. But have you ever tried NOT to control the direction of a bout?

Our brains make predictions continuously and automatically as part of the survival mechanism that control and monitor our bodies. You unconsciously predict where your arm will end up after you move it. A Very complicated computation. You do this by generating short-term, constantly upgraded guesses about where your arm will be by combining information about the world and the movement you're about to initiate. These guesses are followed by new information about where your arm actually ended up, which confirm or contradict your predictions. Your brain compares the past-movement reality and the pre-movement belief and adjusts the predictions to make your movement a little more skilful and fluid.

YOUR movement! Mine is stuck in this iper-conscious mental glue all the time. If I ever happen to have an intuition, this is not acted upon unselfconsciously, it is not simply subsumed into action: because object of consciousness, it is brought into the plane of attention, opaque, objectified. And SLOW! Which gets worse when I can spy my opponent sneering through his mask at that vehemence born of frustration (Yes, Matt C., that one's for you! And yes, I do pull my arm back because I want to hit you very hard. One day I will hit you very hard).

Instinct cannot be pursued: it must ensue, and it can only do so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication, as the by-product of one's surrender to a mind other than one's own. Certain goals cannot be directly pursued because direct pursuit changes them. The right parry must be a side effect of something else. O la-la, I sounded exactly like John R. there!

My ability gets broken up by my attempt to know it. Am I thinking a thought while you're actually thinking it? Can training liberate me? You guys have mental abilities which happen to be instrumentally useful, and therefore should be pursued and trained. But for me, doing so make no sense, since ability cannot be call into action by an effort of will, and the attempt to do so merely drives it further away: if I pursue reaction, it vanishes into nothing.

Could everyone give me the last thought they think just before a bout? I love statistics.