How fast is too fast for a brain?

Breathing in and breathing out. The pounding of the heart. The digestive tract cooking and crumbling smelly mush into juice for the cells. Not only there is a rhythm to life, but also, and categorically more importantly, there is a safe range of frequencies in which life occurs and beyond which it first shows signs of distress and then it falls into the havoc of anxiety, bouts of rage and depression, and the inevitable demise into the basic elements. And life does not stop there. The insects, the bacteria, the chemical reactions that deliver life as well as its digression into deadness, they all happen within a safe range of frequencies. Arouse the drums, or calm them down, too drastically, and the bridge collapses.

Every student of control systems is some time in her first year of introduction to concepts pertaining to dynamic systems presented the stark example of a system that is forced to operate outside of its safe zone of frequencies and the inevitable catastrophe that ensued. Here is how the story goes.

Once upon a time, there was a bridge that was considered as a marvel of construction by its builders and the public alike. The honeymoon for the bridge was very quickly blown away, though, by strong gusts that stroke its sides and made it have to respond to frequencies that it was not prepared for. In the short video recording of those fateful moments one can watch as a deserted car oscillates with the entire bridge. The dance of the bridge at first appears docile. Nothing more than a momentary surge that is to pass harmlessly. It is imaginable if a spectator found excitement in the little benign trick that the nature seemed to be playing to that bridge. As the reel proceeds for about two minutes, however, it would be hard for a sharp eye to not discover, taken aback by terror of course, that the bridge is collapsing. And collapse it did. The incident has become over the years an example of the dangers of dynamic systems being exposed to, or rather not being protected against, the inferno of hostile frequencies.

The fate of Tacoma Narrows Bridge is important to us, as homo sapiens, not only because it is a potential threat to any not-yet-constructed bridge, but also, and more importantly, because any threat to one dynamic system may be an indicator, a proverbial canary in the coal mine, that other dynamic systems are endangered by a similar phenomenon. And endangered they are. Bend a piece of metal too quickly and too aggressively against its will and it will break. Move your hand too quickly while trying to balance an inverted pendulum and it will succumb to the ensuing chaos. One can seek and in fact find the catastrophic impact of unexpected frequencies in many dynamic systems and as these systems encroach upon the human skin it is only inevitable to inquire if such a phenomenon is also a threat to us, the majestic homo sapiens. And I believe that is the case.

The human biped is a product of millions of years of evolution that occurred within carefully maintained and adhered to frequency limits. Things happen at a particular pace and we might not always have ample time to respond but somehow at the end things work out. Intervals of hyperactivity are compensated by periods of relaxation. We take a nap when faced with prolonged periods of physical labour. It is as if, although frequencies rise and fall, but at the end they balance out into what is, non-incidentally, our comfort zone of facing stimuli and responding to them. While that sounds like a safe mode of operation for the human animal, the frightful question is what may happen if this delicate balance is disrupted, momentarily or intermittently.

Standing in a busy subway car, packed with exhausted labourers at the end of their shifts, a messages comes in and rudely makes its existence known via a vibration on my wrist. The train has peeked its head out of its dark cavern for a short breath and the invasive organelles of digitality have found an instance to hand a message over to me. A few lines of text, maybe accompanied by a picture, in Farsi or in English, if the sender has deemed her message worthy of her time. Otherwise, the mumbo jumbo of Finglish, Farsi words typed in English, will make my eyebrows turn away from their linear cohesion and into a frown. Notwithstanding, an intrusion has occurred and I must respond to it. Not only that, I need to be quick as well, or rather I need to also decide how quick I want to be in responding to this message. The situation is more dire, in fact. I first need to decide if I am going to respond to the message. A great friend of mine suggested in the weekend that we, human beings, are capable of making only about thirty well-contemplated decisions in an average day. Any attempt to elevate that number would, in her words, jeopardize the quality of those and all our other decisions as well as the tranquility of the person who is forced to make the decisions. If there is a shred of truth to that proposition, then the non-distinct incident of having received a text message on the subway consumes at least three seats on that departing ship.

It is important, however, to avoid falling into the deception that receiving a text message is a calamity in this time and age. I would argue that the downsizing of the other opportunities for making contact with people has effectively made us reliant on the new technologies for building and maintaining human relationships. My own personal experience, for that matter, is a testament to the important role that digital media plays in discovering and developing exquisite connections with rarities within the human race. I have observed, rather gleefully, that a significant majority of my most cherished relationships have either started on the web or could have been significantly damaged had I not used the social media to the extent that I do. There is no doubt, therefore, that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are not void of value and content. They do, at the same time, however, cause harrowing disturbances in ones equanimity, partly because they alter the pace of human interaction towards high frequencies that have had no precedence during human evolution.

Here is the key question. What is the safe range of frequencies for the human psyche to operate and communicate at? At what point does the soul fail to ride the waves and fall into despair? And ultimately, experience seems to make it abundantly clear that the human body, and that includes the human brain as well, is generally in need of protection against the elements. No astronaut would even consider allowing the ferocity of vacuum and the solar blaze meet their bodies absent of the circumvention of a thick spacesuit. Why would then any person, in their right mind, allow the unknown ether of the digital sphere come in contact with the delicate balance of their neural circuitry?

A major theme for creative efforts of the human mind has been to devise shields that would allow a person to step into the unfamiliarity of the spaces in which life never took hold. Breathing masks for the deep ocean, goose feather jackets for the frigidity of the polar caps, and, in fact, much closer to home, the popularity of leather gloves between November and April in Toronto, they are all successful human achievements in protecting her cells against the outside. Why would then any person allow the strong winds of electronic representation and stimulation sweep her brain cells unfettered by a protection mechanism? Have we not witnessed the carnage already? Is there anyone out there who does know of a person who bent and broke and dispersed away in the hurricane of the social media?

Note: Marquee picture is a frame in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse video found on YouTube.

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