Timing is Everything

Published: 2014-10-15 09:57 |

Category: Grad |

When you touch something hot, the nerves in your hand will immediately fire a signal up toward your head to make a decision about what to do about the “hot thing.” But – here’s the cool part – your nervous system is smarter than that. Your spinal cord sees that warning go past and tells your hand to pull away – no brain needed. In fact, you don’t even realize you’ve pulled away until after it’s happened because your brain hasn’t received the signal from your hand yet. Wild.

Analogy 1: Pulling Bach

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Bach’s ability to layer the theme in a count-counterpoint method was unmatched. Listen closely – the right and left hand of the pianist are playing the same pattern, just at different octaves and at different times. Yet, they overlap to compliment one another. Our brain does the same thing…variations on a theme (sending and receiving signals) at every moment of the day unmatched in efficiency and power by any machine built.

Analogy 2: Coordination and Node Structure

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The nervous system isn’t a straight A-to-B system. It’s a complex network of feedback loops which feed information between nodes in response to the environment. The global air traffic network is more than the sum of it’s routes…an issue at a single node anywhere in the global network will be felt downstream. The same is true for our sensory networks – a delay in our reflex arc, for example, can lead to serious damage to our tissues.

Building solid analogies requires that we step out of our own area of expertise and think as a novice.

The most difficult part of this assignment was avoiding direct comparisons – particularly those based on physical structure. I also think a good portion of building a solid analogy is thinking outside of my own understanding – approaching the idea or problem for the point of view of someone who has no experience with the topic.

In fact, it’s how I built the Bach analogy. My wife and I were discussing analogies and this assignment, and I was explaining some of the examples given in Sparks of Genius (in particular, the vibration of electrons). She suggested that I apply music to our nervous system because of the way it is built. I immediately thought of the call-and-response (counterpoint) style of music, and was able to build that into an explanation of how the reflex function works. Before speaking to Lindsey, I was limiting myself to structural comparisons…I was thinking too literally about what I already knew. I then used the same approach to draw the second analogy between our bodies and the air patterns of the world day to day. I may not be able to talk about the actual structure of nerves at this point, but everyone can relate to a delayed flight at some point. We now have a truth which bridges our experiences.

As teachers, we often rely on our content knowledge more than our context knowledge. We fall back on “explaining” rather than “exploring” because it’s safe, and frankly, it’s how many of us were trained before entering the classroom. That being said, we often analogize on the fly – we come up with examples and comparisons to help ease confusion and frustration. Consider keeping track of those and refining the ideas to become more central in your instruction and not so situational.


Bach: Badass of Counterpoint (2013). Listen, learn, and do. Retrieved from: http://listenlearnanddo.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/bach-badass-of-counterpoint/

Colombo, C. (n.d.). “4. Inventio in D minor BWV 775 (0’54”).” Retrieved from: http://www.mp3classicalmusic.net/48Music/Bachjs48/Inventio04.mp3

Global connectivity revisited (2011). Spatial analysis. Retrieved from: http://www.spatialanalysis.ca/2011/global-connectivity-mapping-out-flight-routes/

Kuensting, S. (1995). “Reflex arc animation.” Retrieved from: http://www2.sluh.org/bioweb/bi100/tutorials/neurophysiology/reflexarc_4.html.

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Comments are always open. You can get in touch by sending me an email at brian@ohheybrian.com