REACTION TIMES: THE TWO THAT SCIENCE
. By Noel Huntley, Ph.D
We are referring to physiological reaction times, that is, the phenomenon involved in muscular activity in which there is a delay between response in a muscle and the stimulus for that response. By stimulus we include conscious intention not just, say, reacting away from a pin prick.
The reaction times with which we are familiar are those involved in such stimulus response activities as, say, an athlete experiences when the sound of the starting gun acts as a stimulus for action, or one touches a hot stove and the hand withdraws automatically.
These are all automatic responses, bypassing the conscious mind since the signals, for instance, to remove the hand, ifcontrolled by the conscious mind, would take longer. These automatic responses are in the region of eight to a tenth of a second or so. In all these cases the stimulus data has been preset either by the body's autonomous system or by the conscious mind.
Withdrawing the hand from the hot stove is due to an in-built response to that stimulus. In the case of the athlete sprinter, however, the athlete consciously presets the response. The conscious decision is made prior to the sound of the gun so that when the sound is heard the body will virtually automatically react---but with the athlete's agreement still in existence.
One could test this automatically by suddenly substituting a different sound as though extraneous from the environment, resembling the sound of the gun, but which is quite obviously not the gun to the conscious mind. The body will generally react as though it is the genuine stimulus.
What we might be interested in is how long would it take to react if the athlete could only make the decision after the sound has occurred. This obviously would be much slower. It could possibly be achieved by presenting to the athlete any one of, say, half a dozen similar sounds---sufficiently similar so that the autonomous system can't distinguish them. Only one of the sounds would be the correct one in which to react to.
The above is just to familiarize the reader with the concepts here. The last example of the athlete being presented with circumstances in which a conscious decision must be made comes into a category of reaction times which are based on the learning process. That is, during learning new movements the person is constantly experiencing this longer reaction time (though intermittent since some combinations of movements have been learned).
The other reaction time we are interested in is the one involved in learned processes. That is, the skill or coordinated movements have been learned and we are not interested in any initial signal to begin the process. Thus there are two new reaction times here: 1) very slow, involved in the learning process or, in other words, learning a sequence, and 2) very quick (to instantaneous), involved in learned sequences.
Clearly it would appear very difficult to measure these reaction times. Measurement must take place during muscular activity in which sequences of movements are being executed. The learning reaction time (as opposed to the learned one) is the time it takes the person to be conscious of the new position in changing body posture. A movement is made, say, by the hand or arm and it takes time for the conscious mind to locate in space and time this new position before the next can be made. This is why learning to coordinate sequences of movements takes time and we have to move slowly. Can we measure this reaction time? Yes, there is a very simple method---but not at all obvious.
Draw a series of parallel lines on paper about an eight to a quarter of an inch apart. Draw about 20 lines depending on the test subject's concentration. The more lines one has, within limits, the greater the accuracy. Using a stop watch, time yourself or another to give the length of time it takes to point---say, with a pencil---at each line consecutively, starting at one end and finishing at the other; like counting the lines. Then divide the time, say, about four seconds by twenty, giving a reaction time of 4/20 or one fifth of a second. Test subjects (scientists) had reaction times ranging from around quarter of a second and over.
This is the long reaction time involved in the learning process. The idea of the parallel lines is to confuse the mind if the person moves too fast. There is a maximum speed and the reaction at this speed is what we wish to measure. The test must not be practiced to the point in which the individual can skillfully jump to, say, alternate lines. An automaticity could build up in which the hand could automatically and accurately point at some lines without the conscious mind knowing but that the conscious mind catches up on a following line. Nevertheless apart from this, the subject's best time should be used. Where the time is longer it can be due to lapse of concentration.
This is the time it takes the conscious mind to keep in touch with every new body position or to intercept the automatic processes to make the next movement. In learning movements, some combinations will be learned. It is the linking together by the conscious mind of unlearned movements which gives rise to this delay. It is also the linking together of learned sequences where they need connecting up. Thus there is quite a long access time when learning to coordinate. For this slow reaction time, that involved in learning skills, a rough figure appears to be around quarter of a second.
What kind of access time can we expect in learned sequences? What kind of delays are involved when we are coordinating movements skillfully? This is the second reaction time of interest. One may ask, Is there any delay at all? A concert pianist may be playing over ten notes a second and knows exactly where every finger is, kinesthetically. If the delay was around a tenth of a second, as with the well-established automatic reaction times, everyone would have to make slow movements. This also gives a proof that man is not just a brain and a body, in which signals would take time to go from the brain to the muscles. The mind works on quantum and holistic principles, enabling instantaneous or virtually instantaneous communication to take place between learning patterns and the muscles. This instantaneous feedback system was described in the article 'Impact Skills'. When the golfer's club strikes the ball, there is an instantaneous feedback of information 'telling' the joints not to yield (since this is the intention) and they tighten up in a brief time interval (impact time is around one-thousandth of a second). The sharpness of this locking of joints is governed by the skill level, which is the information density in the learning pattern (see other articles on physical mobility). This applies to any other activity involving impact: tennis, keyboard (finger impact with keys), even running in which the foot impacts the ground and the muscles must lock to prevent collapse at the joints. The sharper this rise in tension the less fatigue the person will experience in the leg muscles (still, however, working within the muscular limits).
Thus in learned movements all the information for the sequence has been associated and the access time is virtually instantaneous. [Note that technically these learning pattern mechanisms are holographic, and the learning pattern is a mechanism for instantly converting nonlinearly stored information into linear data---one bit at a time as the need arises.]
The instantaneous reaction time is evident in Martial Arts, such as 'breaking the plank'. It provides a focus for the energies instantly at the moment of impact. Quite apart from this Chi energy, which the experts generate, power arises from the learning patterns in proportion to the information density (see other articles). Let us illustrate this extraordinary feature with a thought experiment. Imagine two subjects, each is to provide an impact by striking some surface with a force which could be measured. Each person's arm weighs the same (the body is in fixed position); each strikes the surface with the same force (the same velocity, the same tensions in muscles, etc.). Will the detection instrument reveal the same value for the force at the surface for each subject? Scientists will say that it would, obviously. If, however, the information density in the learning patterns is different, active in the region of impact---this does require practice in hitting the surface though---the results will be different. One person might even produce twice the force of the other, even though all other conditions are the same. This is why professionals in golf, tennis, etc. can demonstrate such apparent strength. Note that this type of force relates to power, that is, strength multiplied by speed. It does not apparently have much value in slow movements.
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