Diametric dyslexia

One night, during a bout of insomnia, I was watching one of those self-enrichment programs on PBS, one of those programs where a motivational speaker gives a talk that’s supposed to help you live your life to its fullest potential or help you make more money or help you succeed in your professional life, etc. The speaker was Daniel Pink, who was promoting his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. His argument is that our culture will need to emphasize right-brain skills more in order to maintain a viable workforce as jobs that require routine, left-brain skills – work that is systematic and linear – are taken over by computers or outsourced overseas. The problem is summarized by Pink with three words: abundance, Asia, automation. He identifies six right-brain qualities that will be of importance to anyone wanting to succeed in the 21st century: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning.

Immediately, I thought that this is the kind of well-worded nonsense that makes people nod their heads but that’s no more informative than reading a horoscope. The ideas that Pink presents are not new, and some of them are based upon tiresome prejudices. Despite the dubiousness of his thesis, Pink made a few points that I thought were interesting and that lead me to some tangential observations about my struggle with diametric concepts in general.

One of the exercises, which Pink had the audience perform, is supposed to illustrate the concept of empathy. The audience was instructed to draw an imaginary “E” on their foreheads, after which Pink revealed that most people automatically draw the “E” from the perspective of the observer, with the open side of the “E” facing left relative to the drawer’s position. Evidently, most people are empathetic by nature. I failed the test, drawing the “E” on my forehead with the open end facing right. The funny thing is that I thought that I was drawing it from the observer’s perspective; I even took a moment to think about it. I realized that this test doesn’t prove that I lack empathy as much as it proves that I’m directionally retarded; I always have been. It’s not that I can’t find my way from point A to point B when the origin and destination are random. My confusion is with certain diametrical opposites or bilateral directions: left/right, east/west, clockwise/counter-clockwise, etc. I often joke that I wouldn’t be able to tell my left from my right were it not for a mole on my left hand that serves as a point of reference. While I don’t have to look at my hand anymore in order to be reminded of my left side, there is some neural pathway that has developed that instantaneously associates “left” with “mole” in my brain. Indeed I am literally guided by the mole.

I’m completely baffled as to how anyone could distinguish between diametric opposites if they had no point of reference to assist them. I recognize that there is a difference between left and right, but the difference is abstract and difficult to grasp. The term diametric implies circularity, even if the object is not a circle. The diameter is the longest line that is formed between two poles in any geometric configuration. Thus, there are two essential components needed to determine a diameter: a boundary, and a point within the boundary that is the geometric center. These two components are the only real thing about the diameter because they can be located. Movement along the diameter will result in the eventual return to any selected reference point that is crossed, so the direction of the movement is arbitrary while the outcome is always the same. When it comes to diametric opposites, there is no absolute frame of reference; there are only agreed upon frames of reference. I can, for instance, distinguish between up and down more easily than left and right, because I know that gravity draws things “downward,” the commonly accepted frame of reference being the thing that causes gravity, the earth. Likewise, I have no problem distinguishing forward from backward since moving forward is less taxing on my sense of balance than moving backward. But I have difficulties when it comes to the cardinal directions.

To further understand the indistinguishable sense of sameness that diametric opposites might inflict upon some minds, one might ponder the image that is sometimes associated with the bound universe. The saying is that in such a universe an observer looking through a telescope would see the back of her head if the telescope were strong enough. This is really just a philosophical exercise in comprehending the conundrum of diametrics, since some of the conditions that would be needed to conduct the experiment are impossible and could not, in any case, be fulfilled simultaneously. These conditions are:

  1. The light which enables you to see something through the telescope travels at an infinite speed so that there is no temporal dislocation between the observed and the observer. You could therefore view the “end point” instantaneously without having to consider that light emanating from any source takes time to reach the observer, making it impossible for a “present” moment to be captured through the lens of an actual telescope.
  2. The universe is not expanding at an infinite speed and is preferably static. Obviously if the universe were expanding at the same speed as light, the light with which you need to make an observation would never be captured by the telescope. You would observe nothing. If the universe were expanding at any speed slower than that of light, you would observe the object at the end point getting smaller and smaller until it fades into nothingness.
  3. You are using an optical device that captures and refracts light in the visible range. Though there may be all sorts of useful information in the non-visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum, the only information pertinent to this experiment is to discover what the end point of the bound universe looks like to human eye.
  4. There is no obstacle in the universe that would impede the path of light by absorbing it, bending it, or refracting it so that the source of light that enables you to see through the telescope is received by the telescope in an undisrupted state that would not skew the image being observed.
  5. And, finally, for the sake of aesthetics, your head does not have to be in the way so that you can observe the end point image by means of some unobtrusive monitor recording what is captured by the lens.

Assuming that all of these conditions could be fulfilled, would the observer not be caught in an infinite loop produced by the lens? The observer would see nothing but the lens. The thing doing the observing and the thing being observed would end up being one and the same thing. In this scenario, it would not matter in which direction you pointed the telescope, as the image produced would always be the same. Only in such a universe would an absolute frame of reference be possible, and the frame itself would be that which is produced by the active observer: the human being and his eyeball. The lens of the telescope is a passive observer, enabling the active observation to take place; the eyeball is the only lens that is connected to a complex processor which interprets the image. Because the image arrives at the processor unimpeded and undisturbed, there can be no question about what the image is. In this universe, there would be no illusions or mirages; the image would appear as it is without a temporal or spatial position to put it into context except as it relates to the active observer.

While the situation described is impossible (we know that both time and position in space are relative), some of us nonetheless have a tendency to behave as if we are the absolute frame, either for the sake of simplicity or due to the lack of a more obvious frame that could be used. This tendency might also be attributed to egocentricity and a lack of empathy, but I prefer to view it as a tendency towards balance and neutrality. It’s no wonder, then, that we have problems with direction, for there is no left and right in a universe that begins and ends with an active observer standing in her absolute frame.


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