Daily Archives: May 23, 2010

Losing One’s Marbles in the Mind

I discovered this interesting news item from Belgium about a 72-year-old man who is obsessed with his marble run.

I like it for two reasons. First, I am increasingly interested in obsessive-compulsive behaviours and second, I kinda relate to his preoccupation. I think that there is something very captivating about watching marbles race round a track and then end up on a conveyor belt to start the race all over again.

Playful Penguin Race

When my eldest was young, she had a “Playful Penguins” race track which she absolutely adored. The little plastic penguins had wheels on the bottom and would race round the track to be picked up by the motorized staircase and taken to the top again. In truth, I think I played with it more than her.

There is something fascinating about moving toys that seem to come alive – something that developmental psychologists have known for some time. It would appear that babies are attracted to such toys (and in some instances find them frightening). I expect it is because these seemingly non-living things appear life-like. Whenever we experience a violation of our expectation, we are naturally curious. This is exactly the principle that infant researchers use to discover what expectations infants hold.

Anyway, there is something captivating about marble runs and one the masters of these, is the sculptor and artist, George Rhoads who designs those wonderful perpetual motion marble runs that you sometimes find in airports or science museums. Maybe its the rhythm of the movements or marveling at the ingenuity of his design or simply the seemingly perpetual continuity of movements that do it. In any event, I find them peaceful in an otherwise unpredictable world.

Which brings me back to marbles and the mind. I am currently reading Douglas Hofstadter’s prize-winning book, “I am a Strange Loop,” in which he argues that the sense of self is an epiphenomenon emerging from a self-recursive system. As an example of an epiphenomenon, he describes how he once picked up a stack of envelopes and was convinced that there was a marble buried deep within. In fact the hard, round lump was generated by the overlapping flaps of the many envelopes that gave an illusion that there was something solid.

I have been enjoying the book and Hofstadter’s use of metaphor and analogy (which he argues are some of the primary processes in thought) until it delved into Gödel’s recursive mathematics. Unfortunately my eyes just glazed over but I get the gist of what he is saying. Hofstadter argues that what holds true for mathematics, also holds true for the representational systems of the brain. The brain generates patterns that give rise to epiphenomena generate an illusion of self.

Suffice to say, researching the illusion of one’s own mind is not easy going and I may be losing my own marbles. I’ll keep you posted.

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