Saturday, September 22, 2007

Apophenia

Humans are horrible at noticing unexpected connections between large number of variables. When I was living in LA, driving took on an added measure of excitement during a heavy rainfall. Not because of reduced visibility or the slickness of the road as months of impacted dust and oil were finally loosened and left to form a thin, low-viscosity film over the asphalt. Rain has those effects on roadways across the world. In New York or Boston, the dangers of driving in the rain are hammered into new motor vehicle operators before the first drop of precipitation taps their moving windshields. Southern Californian drivers, in contrast, are faced with rain so infrequently that the subject seems to be passed over in high school driver's ed. Many are slow to discover the relationship between rain and reduced traction on their own. Even the occasional skid while blasting through tight curves at 60 mph or faster doesn't seem to clue them in to a possible causal interaction. On the evening after a heavy rainfall, there is inevitably a car or two lying inoperable on the sides of the 110. The stories I heard about cars spinning 360 in the middle of the roadway were even more disturbing.

Another example: One summer in college, I was baffled by the seemingly unpredictable variations in my level of motivation when working in the afternoons. Some days I was hungry and tired and disengaged as the afternoon wore into the evening. Other days, I was consumed by my research and barely thought about dinner. I thought the difference might be due to some aspect of my diet or sleep pattern, but I couldn't find any consistent covariations. I even considered the possibility that I was going into ketosis (which of course is patently absurd). Only after the fact did I come to realize that the difference must have been due to the color of the coffee pot. I had always assumed that caffeine had relatively little effect on me and drank coffee because I liked the taste. So I didn't really pay attention to whether I poured my coffee from the brown (caffeinated) pot, or the orange (decaffeinated) pot. In retrospect, I was as naive as the LA drivers who refuse to ease up on the gas peddle during a downpour.

Which brings us to the present day. Up until last Tuesday, I was in a multi-week funk, feeling not just tired, but less conscious than usual. I was sleeping long and deeply, but it just wasn't doing me any good. Philosophers refer to entities that behave just like people but which aren't conscious as zombies. That's what I felt like, perhaps with the addition of a little homunculus sealed off behind one-way, sound-proof glass, allowed to watch the proceedings but unable to exert any control. Then on Tuesday, the funk magically lightened. I can't say I feel 100%, but it's certainly better. What brought on this descent into the voodoo nether-world? What precipitated my slow return? Here we are once again faced with a superflux of variables and no sign of a correlation. I'm sure there's a simple explanation, but I'm equally sure that I will never find it. My best guesses are:

a) After spending a week or two going all hard-core on the German learning, I gave up again. I can't remember the citation off the top of my head, but I'm pretty sure that REM sleep has been shown to be correlated with language learning. That is, immersion in a foreign language increases the amount of REM sleep, and the magnitude of this increase is correlated with the amount of learning. Perhaps my foolish attempts to learn the local language were saturating my REM sleep time, leaving me semi-sleep deprived despite eight hours in bed.

b) The gym finally reopened. It had been closed for the previous two weeks. For cleaning. In the US, the cleaning would have been done at night. Or one section of the facility would have been closed off at a time, leaving the rest functional and open. I can only assume that a phalanx of temporary employees was brought in, issued toothbrushes, and spent ten eight-hour days on their hands and knees, scouring every surface. Either that or they sealed off all the entrances and flooded the building with dilute hydrogen peroxide. When I was finally allowed back in Monday night, the gym was indeed clean. But it was clean before they shut down. Which is to say, I couldn't see that their extensive efforts made any difference. Regardless, I was finally able to lift heavy things and put them down again, after two weeks of just running in circles. This change in my exercise routines may have directly or indirectly affected my energy level.

In the end, I'm probably just an obsessive-compulsive hypochondriac, and it was all in my head to begin with. But the point remains that people are bad at detecting unexpected correlations.