Simone Biles Gets the Twisties
(My previous web host was giving me trouble: messed up subscriptions and disappearing posts. Here are all four current posts. )
You don’t have to be history’s greatest gymnast to experience the “twisties”—losing your internal map of three-dimensional space—as Simone Biles did in the 2021 Olympics. Years ago, I was training in Aikido. Every class, which I attended three times a week, began with warmups that included the practice of rolling, going forward and backward over one shoulder. Along with other means of falling safely, skill in rolling in Aikido is necessary because training entails being thrown, repeatedly.
After several years of practice, suddenly, I could no longer roll backwards over my right shoulder. After wrenching my neck trying to correct, I cheated and practiced my backward rolls on only my left side. Thankfully, I was never called out for it by our sensei. My rolling troubles lasted a few weeks and disappeared as suddenly as they appeared.
Simon Biles’ navigation through space is the most complex of any sport in history; it’s no wonder the slightest mental glitch can lay waste to her confidence.
Regardless of the reason, the result was Biles’ mental glitch was the intrusion of conscious doubt into subconscious fluency. If you’ve ever had a cat, you know the cliché, they always land on their feet, to be true. Cats’ navigation skills never go down because they never worry about getting gold medals and letting family, friends, and country down. Humans and their pathetic consciousness.
All this creation of our map of “out there” is done subconsciously. We wouldn’t be able to function for two minutes otherwise. But sometimes our subconscious navigation system malfunctions. The map function we rely on is suddenly down. This can happen for moments, and we quickly recover, or it may result in panic and leave us not knowing up from down, literally, which brings me to the research of Chilean Neurobiologist Humberto Maturana.
According to Maturana, as Simone Biles is operating in accord to the internal map she’s created through repetition, observers of Simone Biles are creating the image of Simone Biles as she moves through the air. We’ve learned our own concept of gymnasts moving through the air through repetition of triggering (or “perturbating” in Maturana’s terms) waves and vibrations that our nervous system organizes for us. Our nervous system is both inherited from our genes and modified as we live. Millions of years of evolution will give you time to do the laundry and create an unfathomably complex nervous system.
Imagine, every night, you’re in bed, with your eyes closed, and you’re being told a story. You hear it so many times, you can see the visual descriptions. You’ve created a mental map, which is as real as if you’re moving through so-called real space. Maturana’s experiments with frogs, pigeons, and salamanders imply that all vision, and by extension, all sensory experience is no different from creating that mental map from repeated experiences that started at birth—an ability that begins with species-level genetic inheritance and develops with experience. There’s no such thing as seeing, there are only stories our nervous system creates from repetition of experience. To the extent we see a Simone Biles comes from our species genetic commonalities. To our seeing a different from-each–other Simone Biles stems from our learning from experience. We all see Simone Biles but not the same Simone Biles.