There Are No “Ducks” In VirtualLand … Only “Cats In Shopping Carts”

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A couple of weeks ago I was waiting in an examination room along with my good friend Barb. My beloved yellow lab, Amber, was not doing well following a rather nasty seizure. She was 14 plus years old, so the prognosis was not good. My veterinarian, Dr. M, came in and began examining Amber. Amber was lying on the floor because her hindquarters were a bit wobbly. Dr. M ran a couple of neurological tests while also lying on the floor next to Amber. As Dr. M began to get up and assume a kneeling position, both Barb and I at almost the same time blurted out, “Duck, there’s an exam table above you.” Without even looking above herself, Dr. M smiled and simply said, “Thanks but I know all of these exam rooms.”

What did Dr. M mean when she said that she “knows” the exam rooms? That’s the topic of this blog post.

Back in the 1980s I took a job working for one of the major oil companies after completing a masters of science in structural geology. During one of my petroleum geology training sessions I was told that oil rig drillers will know more about the local geology than any seasoned, highly educated geologist ever will. There’s that word “know” again. What the heck kind of knowing are we talking about? I would soon find out.

I’m sitting on my first well in the Williston Basin up in North Dakota. I decide to go up to the doghouse (where the driller performs his magic—yes, most drillers are men) and chat with the driller about this “knowing” the local geology. I bring along a package of Oreo cookies (long story). After a few minutes of introductory chitchat, I straight out asked the driller, “During my training, I was told that you guys know the geology here better than us geologists ever will. What kind of ‘knowing’ are we talking about exactly?” The driller smiled a bit and just said, “Look around, take it in, what are you sensing?” I replied, “I hear big diesel engines running, the clatter of the drill stem turning in the rotary table, the floor beneath me vibrating, even the top of the drill pipe stand swaying a bit.” The driller, who probably only has a high school degree, barks back, “Bingo! You pull together all of these sensations and experiences and you get a way of knowing these rocks that you can’t get from a book or by pounding on outcrops with those rock hammers you geologists love so much.” Sensing a bit of animosity creeping into the conversation, I ask, “Cookie?” The driller takes a couple and continues, “These vibrations, engine noises, clattering, smells, rig behavior … it’s a symphony, and every rock formation has its own particular song. When the rig plays a song I know, I’m a happy man. But when the rig plays a song I’m not expecting, I get really nervous.”

I immediately flashed on my training and the part where they told us that we must always be prepared for the hydrogen sulfide gas warning siren to go off. H2S can be deadly if inhaled in large enough quantities (concentrations higher than 100 ppm). During our training we were told, “Always know which way the wind is blowing so you can duck out in the right direction and not get hit by a blast of H2S.”

The driller brought me back to the present moment by cautioning me thus: “Doesn’t matter who you are—driller, tool pusher, service company worker, geologist—when you’re up here, you better know when and where to duck or it could cost you your life.”

What these two examples point to is a way of knowing the world that depends on synthesis, synthesizing a myriad of experiences and sensations to form an inner model or map of the surrounding world. Cognitive scientists call these “cognitive maps” or even “mental models.” (Bowlby’s theory depends heavily on the development of mental models, but that’s a story for another day.) When you see a professional athlete, say, an Olympic bobsled team member or figure skater, rehearsing in their heads, they’re rehearsing using their mental models of what they should expect: twists, turns, body sensations, sights, etc. With enough practice these mental models or cognitive maps become “second nature.” Pilots depend on this type of second nature. So too big rig truck drivers and ship captains. They hear a symphony of synthesis, and when a song gets played that they don’t expect, they get nervous. For them, it’s second nature to duck at the right time and in the right direction without having to think. My veterinarian knows when to duck. Workers on a drilling rig know when to duck. Pilots, sea captains, big rig drivers, athletes, machinists, soldiers … they all know when to duck. They have to; it could mean their lives otherwise. For a Hollywood depiction of a person who has an incredible sense of spatial cognition, grab a copy of the 2012 movie Flight with Denzel Washington. OK, this is a fictional airline pilot who saves many lives, but don’t forget what real life airline pilot C.B. Sullenberger did: saved many lives.

So what? So these different people “know” the environment they work in by developing a “second nature,” a “symphony of synthesis,” an “inner cognitive model or map.” Big deal! Well, it is a big deal when these models or maps or symphonies become compromised and begin to fade (as the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster points out). Lets look at an example from the world of spatial cognition research.

As a grad student in counseling psychology back in the 1990s I heard about a number of different psychological studies. One in particular continues to stick in my mind. I call this the “Cats In Shopping Carts” study. Poor cats, they are often used in psychological studies (right up there with college students). Here’s the setup for this study.

The researchers were studying how cognitive maps and spatial cognition are developed. As you would expect, cats have a well developed sense of spatial awareness or cognition. The researchers created a contrived experimental environment consisting of blocks, cones, balls, ramps, and such. They had normal cats (the proverbial control group) navigate the environment by allowing them to simply walk or jump through at their own pace. They then assessed the resulting cognitive maps developed by the normal cat population. OK, here’s where it gets interesting.

The researchers then placed a population of test cats in straight jackets (again, poor cats) and then placed the cats, one at a time, into shopping carts. They then would push the individual cat through the same contrived environment. Once again the researchers assessed the resulting cognitive maps developed by the test cat population Here’s what the researchers discovered.

The normal (or control group) cat population developed normal cognitive maps of the contrived environment. No surprise here. The test cat population also developed a cognitive map of the environment, however these test cat cognitive maps were compromised in significant ways. The test cats developed cognitive maps that allowed them to know where objects were. However, these cognitive maps were compromised in that they lacked information on what the cats should do when these objects were encountered. The test cat cognitive maps contained information on objects but not information on how to relate to the objects. Simply, being pushed around in an environment in a shopping cart tends to impede storage of relational information within cognitive maps.

Using the work of Executive Function (EF) researcher Elkhonon Goldberg as a backdrop (work I have blogged about previously), the normal cat population was able to develop cognitive maps that allowed for bridging (e.g., relating) between the object-dominated mid-brain and the context-dominated upper brain. It would seem that actually navigating and experiencing an environment was crucial for developing this ability to bridge or relate mid- to upper brain. When the cats were carted around and their bodies were minimally involved, the bridging function (and the storage of relational information) was compromised. From an EF perspective, an involved and engaged body is critical to the development of a bridging mechanism that allows the object mind (e.g., what it is) to communicate with the context mind (e.g., what it means). It is this bridging mechanism that allows us to learn how, when, and where to duck. When the body is constrained, the bridging mechanism becomes compromised, and then we see an increase in hyperactivity (which represents the desire for free body movement) and an inability to focus. We become nervous when we encounter objects that we do not know how to relate to. We become nervous when we hear an “unfamiliar symphony of synthesis.”

So, why am I suggesting that there are no ducks in VirtualLand. I am here suggesting that people who sit in chairs effectively not moving as they navigate VirtualLand are in essence Cats In Shopping Carts. I would suggest that the analogy is sound. People have straight jackets on as they sit relatively motionless in front of screens (as I am doing now). The environment effectively passes them by as they mindlessly (and “bodilessly”) click on hyperlink after hyperlink. People are carted through VirtualLand. I know what you’re thinking: What about smartphones? But the body involvement here is rarely directly related to the environment depicted on the screen. There are many YouTube videos showing people on smartphones falling into mall fountains or walking into oncoming traffic.

If in fact there are only Cats In Shopping Carts in VirtualLand, what does this mean? Well, it means that those people who have mapped real environments and know how, when, and where to duck (so-to-speak), they will become an endangered species. OK, so what? Well, no more pilots, oil rig drillers, sea captains, soldiers, athletes, machinists, and on the list goes. Even many medical doctors rely on developing spatial cognition (pray that your next surgeon has it). And I know what you’re thinking. Yes, many of these workers are being replaced by robots (i.e., sophisticated autopilot systems, robot surgery, military drones), so we don’t need people with normal cognitive maps or mental models. I recently read an article that talked about how jobs like big rig drivers and machinists are going unfilled mainly because young adults do not wish to develop the necessary spatial or body cognition.

If this trend continues we’ll all be Cats In Shopping Carts in the not-too-distant future. But what are we giving up? what will be the unintended consequence? In a word, Meaning. The central unintended consequence will be a degradation of Meaning. And some would argue (myself included) that what makes us human is our ability to engage in meaning making. Body and meaning go hand-in-hand. As body goes away (mainly through automatization and robotization) so too meaning. We’re at a point in biological development in general and human development in specific where we need to ask ourselves, “Do I wish to be a duck or a Cat In a Shopping Cart?” As a general rule analog natives are ducks. Digital immigrants (most baby boomers) have one “paw” in the duck world and one in the world of Cats In Shopping Carts. Digital Immigrants do not mind being carted around a bit, but they still know how, when, and where to duck. Most digital natives are Cats In Shopping Carts who have not learned the art of ducking. Our Foundation supports efforts in the area of experiential education because we feel that participating in Ex Ed is a great way to learn the art of ducking. In contrast, we take a dim view of current efforts to put all learning online and at a distance. Why? True learning engages both the object-dominated mid-brain as well as the meaning making, relational upper brain. Online learning encourages the former and impedes the latter. Regardless of how you feel about web-based, online learning, I would suggest that you learn how, when, and where to duck lest you get run over by a Cat In a Shopping Cart (poor cat).

PS – I dedicate this blog post to my beloved Amber who passed on June 1st, 2013. Amber kept me in my body, kept me engaged in the real world, and helped me to learn how to duck. Our life together provided me with much joy, meaning, and attachment relationship. I will truly miss you. All of your friends will truly miss you.