Biophysics of the Boulevard
Thirty-five years ago I was working in a biophysics lab, on yeast. Never mind what I was working on exactly; when all was said and done the important thing turned out to be when I figured out that the yeast weren't getting enough oxygen. Generally, if you ask a biophysicist to study some behavior or other, of yeast or plants or humans or anything else, he'll measure something. It may turn out to be the wrong thing to measure, and then he'll try measuring something else. Nobody had ever measured the oxygen, for the yeast, and that turned out to be the crucial element. Funny how many people had overlooked that and gotten some kind of wrong answer, and published it.
Thirty years later, at the same biophysics lab where I worked on those yeast, they've been working on humans, checking out their brains, to see if they are cogitating correctly. Ironically, the measurements being taken, when I stopped by for a visit a few years back, were of oxygen demand. More oxygen, more mentating.
You have to step back and think about that a little bit. Using your head is certainly different from using your arm or your leg; no matter how hard you work your brain, nothing much moves, nothing much happens at all. Like we commonly say, it's mental. It's not physical. But what the brain and the muscles have in common is that when they are working hard, they use more oxygen to burn more fuel. The whole idea of getting better at something, whether it's running or thinking, is to be able to burn more fuel faster.
That's how you think about things if you're a biophysicist; and that's why you might go off and measure how much oxygen the brain, or the muscle, was using.*
That's not what people generally measure about the brain, though. Generally, you don't measure something physically to determine what's going on mentally. Generally, they measure something more psychological or intellectual, with some kind of written test or verbal examination or computer screen. But maybe they'd be a lot better off if they did measure something physical, like oxygen consumption (same thing as oxygen demand, unless you're having a problem with delivery.)**
I've got one example: Scrabble players, the real good ones, who are good at anagramming. They practice for Scrabble by solving anagrams, long ones. They use ten times as much oxygen in their prefrontal cortex when they are unjumbling eight letter jumbles -- anagrams -- as an ordinary person uses to answer ordinary questions. (That, believe it or not, is what you see in the logo of The Neurobiophysics Company.) Seems to me that we ought to be able to get that level of mental activity when somebody is learning how to do something that their life depends on -- driving a truck, for example (something I know a thing or two about), or getting into a lifeboat during a disaster at sea. Motivated individuals.
The hell of it is that the way we've got things set up now, for the most part, the brain does its heavy lifting involuntarily, while "we" are in neural neutral, or at a slow crawl. I think what I'm trying to accomplish with the FrogOJT/GetSkilz movies is to get that kind of mental activity level -- oxygen demand -- that these Scrabble players have, on a regular basis; to have a method for doing that, on command.***
The best HowTo movie I ever shot was "How to Prepare a Whopper" for Burger King, 32 sec RT. Everybody sweeping the floor at Burger King wants to work the grille. They're motivated. You tell these floorsweepers and fry-oil changers that if they watch this movie real good, you'll let them work the grille. Trust me, they'll use so much oxygen and glucose when they're watching that movie, their hair will catch fire. You'll be able to do your biophysics experiment by sticking a thermometer in their ear.
That was the Biophysics of Burgers. It's too bad, that the culture of burgers precludes any imparting of expertise.****
I've been a truckdriver. Truckdrivers, by and large, are motivated individuals; and trucking, in general, is both structured and democratic. The Biophysics of the Boulevard will work out just fine.
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*Measuring oxygen demand in the brain, while it's running, is by no means a simple thing to do (and nobody has been able to measure glucose yet, similarly in vivo.) We measure the oxygen with a dual wavelength spectrophotometer operating in the near-infrared, to detect oxygenated hemoglobin going in and deoxygenated hemoglobin on the way out.
**It's not that different from an engine. Nowadays, when you work with an engine, you measure the mass of intake air; and you measure the concentration of exhaust oxygen, while the vehicle is rolling on a dynamometer, same as the modern fuel system does on the road. You can tell if that engine is up to spec by how much oxygen it's using when you know how much fuel it's burning, for a given load. But engines are generally set up for economy; it appears that biological systems are more likely set up hell-for-leather, like an older model gas engine running a Quadrajet.
***FrogOJT/GetSkilz movies (Skilware) are short unadorned digital video sequences with Quicktime text tracks, where the expertise depicted in the video/audio tracks is indexed by alphanumeric strings in the text track. The sum total of the organization's expertise -- the firm's core values and its Way -- is in the corpus of movies; the organization's database of indexed movies is maintained by the organization's IT department, enabling the entire organization to manage its expertise.
****It wasn't that the Burger King workers weren't motivated individuals, not at all. The cultural problem was that unless you were from the same village in Guatemala as the incumbent chef, you weren't going to be the one to get near her grille for any lessons of any kind.