Attending and neglecting people

TuusulanjärviThe International Association for the Study of Attention and Performance has organised a bi-annual meeting since 1966, and the newest edition of this series started today in Tuusula, Finland. This year’s conference is themed “Attending and neglecting people”, and as always, it is a small meeting with hand-picked invited speakers, plenty of time for discussion and networking. 

We are currently at Gustavelund, which is at the southern end of the famous Lake Tuusula, the (summer) home of many famous Finnish artists. Jean Sibelius’ house Ainola is close by, so is Pekka Halonen’s residence, we are practically next door to where Aleksis Kivi died etc. etc. The scenery is, as Riitta Hari told us in her opening address, very much a part of the Finnish mindscape.

The meeting kicked off today, with a great lecture by prof. Chris Frith, who asked the question, whether there is a we-mode in how our minds work. He started the lecture with his answer: yes. But interestingly, he argues there are actually two different ones. There is the one that leads to alignment via mutual adaptation. This we can observe in many places, from subconsciously mimicking each other’s gestures to walking in step when discussing with a friend on the way to the dinner. This is largely automatic, and it is difficult to turn off.

For example, we might, again without really noticing it, start to tap our feet to a groovy piece of music, and we can also do it consciously, very accurately, which is why having people tapping along a beat of music or a metronome has been used quite a lot in psychological research. When we analyse two people tapping together, we find that they mutually adapt to each other, so both follow each other. This was pretty much the beef of my PhD thesis.

This automatic alignment and entrainment, is very difficult to turn off–it is very hard to neglect people. This is why so many rock-paper-scissors -duels end in draws, and why it’s difficult to resist entraining with your tapping partner.

The other type of we-mode has to do with culture and society. We might automatically adapt to each other, mimic them, entrain with them, but beyond these immediate and low-level coordinative modes, we also collaborate, and manage much more complex and subtle forms of togetherness through laws, societal practices, and cultural conventions.

Listening to Chris Frith’s brilliant presentation, I was thinking of rowing in Cambridge, as it exemplifies both we-modes perfectly.


(c) The Cambridge Student / Joe Whitwell 

First, rowing in eights is the ultimate team sport, where you need to look, feel, and listen to the other 7 rowers around you and adjust to a common rhythm, style, power etc. Just to balance the boat requires 9 people (8 rowers and the coxswain) to make minute adjustments, while performing a physical task that requires a lot of power, stamina, skill and endurance. To get the crew to row together, is fine-tuning the we-mode of alignments and mutual adaptation. And it also requires some of the difficult neglecting as well, as you shouldn’t mimic any of the errors other rowers might make, otherwise the balance and rhythm are lost very quickly.

On the river Cam, the other we-mode is also required. As rowing is extremely popular in Cambridge, and all students need to get their rowing done before the 9 o’clock lectures, the bendy and narrow river Cam gets really congested in the mornings. The dozens of eights that go out each morning would cause total carnage (they occasionally still do) at the relatively short stretch of river between the Jesus Lock and Baitsbite Lock that colleges can access, without the strict rules and marshalling that is put in place to keep the whole enterprise organised. How do you manage this huge fleet of eights, most filled with novice or beginner rowers of various levels of ineptitude? That’s the task of CUCBC, the Cambridge University Combined Boat Clubs.

As every sport within the university, rowing is organised around college clubs. Each of the 31 colleges has a boat club that consists of the students of that college who row. Each college boat club might have just one, or in the case of the larger colleges, ten crews that each want some river time, and preferably enough space to do proper pieces with high speed and all that. CUCBC is the organisation that these clubs have put together to agree on rules and bylaws, and to enforce these rules to make it all go as smoothly as possible.

For example, colleges row between the sunrise and the 9 o’clock morning lectures. When does the sun effectively rise, so that it is light enough to start your outing in the morning? CUCBC has a list of times for each date. Is it perhaps too windy or is the river flowing too fast to make it unsafe for novices? CUCBC decides, and flies a flag at their boathouse, as well as online, so you can check that before you go out. There are also rules regarding when college 1st boats (the most experienced ones) can boat, and when the rest can follow, so that the boats going faster can get a head start on the slower ones. Of course, just like in the escalators that Chris Frith showed, there are right- and left-sided traffic on the river (there’s actually a point of crossing, where right-sided traffic changes to left-sided, mid-river…). All rules are enforced by marshals, who each morning watch the proceedings, report back to CUCBC, who then fines college clubs for infringements such as boating too early, coxing too loudly during early hours, or causing carnage by spinning their boats in the wrong place.

So, rowing in Cambridge is a great way to experience both types of we-modes!

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