Watching your brain change

This entry was posted by on Tuesday, 8 March, 2011 at

A late night blog meditation!

Thesis: I seem to get crushes not just on hobbies, but on the bizarre skills required for them.

Take a look at banjo: is there anything more bewildering than listening to Earl Scruggs play a solo at top speed? To a bystander, it’s an astounding blur of continuous arpeggiation, with accents in just the right places. It’s a bit like watching a tap-dancer go nuts with his fingers instead of feet. When I started listening to bluegrass, I fell in love: I must learn to do that crazy thing.

And so I practiced. And took lessons. And practiced. And practiced. Arpgeggios everyday. I would listen to clips of Earl’s recordings slowed down to half speed, analyzing — note by note — each little trick and lick. After a few months, I noticed one day that Earl was starting to slow down whenever I listened to his albums. Was something broken in iTunes? Wait, no… Suddenly my brain was starting to decompose the stream of notes in real time. The blur was actually a bunch of distinct phrases, some which I knew how to play already. And the more I practiced, the slower his recordings became. It’s fascinating to watch your own brain adapt!

And now ham radio. Morse code is clearly a useful tool — it cuts through static like a katana through whipped cream. It propagates much farther than voice and requires almost no power. But ugh — listen to those folks on the air doing it! It’s a cacophony of irritating high-speed beeps. It’s like my kids banging windows with their little toy wooden hammers. Make the noise stop!

But hey, let’s jump in anyway. Listen to a tutorial CD, learn one letter at a time. Practice hearing each character at slow speeds. Practice, practice, practice, for several months. At some point, I gain the courage to reach out and have a slow speed conversation with a stranger over the air. Never mind that I’m shaking and sweating and so nervous that I’m only able to copy half of the characters coming back to me. Over time, the more I do this, the less nervous I get, and the fewer characters I miss.

Then the same revelation comes back this week: “Man, why is it so hard to find people doing high speed morse on the airwaves these days?” Is everyone slowing down? Oh wait. It’s me. My brain is changing again! Morse code doesn’t sound irritating anymore. The beeps are obviously broken into clear section, clear characters. The tones are haunting… almost relaxing. The whole experience is a bit like a calming vacation.

I turn on the radio, and in voice (sideband) mode, the filter is quite wide. I hear endless grating hiss.

I narrow my filter to 1/6th the width, which is best for picking up code. Suddenly the hiss turns into a whispering valley of calm. It’s a bit like being in an indoor swimming pool: endless harsh echoes of screaming families reverberating around you — and then dunking your whole head underwater. A beautiful solitude. A sound of deep watery solace.

Then turn the dial till a code conversation appears. Listen to the letters float by! Like tiny drumbeats of beautiful tone, perfectly spaced. It almost puts you in a trance.

I know my brain has changed, because I can no longer read emails while listening to morse code. It used to be background noise, but now it’s actively messing with my language centers, competing with my ability to read text.