Thursday, October 23, 2008

Arleta's Behavioral Experiment and the Laws of Physics

(Warning: Do not try either of these experiments without help from a professional.)

I have a number of long term friends with whom I've been close since pre-school, first grade, or 7th grade. Then there are a few "newer" friends with whom I've been close for a mere 10, 20 years or so. In the book, I talk about Wendy quite a bit, and Cait, so you have sort of "met" them. But Arleta is another very close friend who had always had great influence in my life. I blogged about how she and I worked together to stop the tormenting/bullying of the mentally retarded kids on the playground when we were in the first grade. And, yes, that's what they were called by the teachers and staff!

We were part of an experiment where everyone's IQ was rigorously tested (Not just a written test, but a whole board of people w/ notebooks and cameras asking you to do all kinds of things and many different types of tasks). The results of these IQ tests were not kept secret from the kids AT ALL! We knew who was "genius", who was "mentally gifted" and who was "not technically mentally gifted, but still an overachiever". Why did we have to know these labels about each other? What could it possibly have accomplished? I don't know.

But I can say without a doubt that Arleta was one of the "high genius" kids and it showed. Her creativity of thought confounded our teachers all the way through school.

I talked with her last night and she told me about a little "science experiment" she did in behavioral psychology that was brilliant, and funny, I think.

For some reason, there was a cluster of us kids growing up together who were fascinated by science AND behavior - human and animal. We were also all musicians, I think. How odd. So we were friends all the way through life.

Arleta had a 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Elseworth, whose class failed to grab her imagination. It wasn't the teacher so much as it was the class. Upstairs, though, she also had a Psychology course taught by Ms. Compton, which she found fascinating. The two classes converged in the most interesting way, as things tend to do with Arleta.

Mr. Elseworth assigned a tedious project where each kid had to write down a minute by minute description of every activity they did, every day, and how much time they spent doing it. For a MONTH! Arleta could see the month stretching before her with having to write down everything and she thought to herself, "I'm not doing this stupid project. I don't CARE what percentage of time I spend brushing my teeth, for instance. I am NOT doing this project."

Having decided that, she had to come up w/ a plan. Upstairs in Psychology, Ms. Compton was describing the power of suggestion and the idea of false memory. AHA! Arleta would do an experiment in false memory and write her psych paper on that, and if it worked, she could avoid doing the "write down everything you do for a month" project.

She had to plant a false memory in Mr. Elseworth. She first chose a number that people naturally remember. She decided to use 98.6, which is the normal temperature of the human body. Now all she had to do is convince Mr. Elseworth that she had received from him a 98.6 on her project. She had to get him to associate the number 98.6 with "Arleta". So she waited until kids started turning in their projects a month later. Mr. Elseworth taught 6 science classes and a lot of them were doing this project, so when there were enough papers to be confusing, she started going up to Mr. Elseworth and saying things like, "I was only able to track 98.6 % of my time, so I got a 98.6. Is that ok? I mean, I somehow didn't record 100% of everything!" He'd reassure her that this was ok.

For the next month (he gave the kids a month to compile their data after the month of recording was finished) she would approach him in the halls and at lunch and during random times and say, "Is the 98.6 going to be enough? I mean, my other work wasn't that highly scored, so I hope the 98.6 is enough." and he'd say, "I think that's enough."

So it went until the end of the semester. Arleta got her report card and it said, "Incomlete". She went in to Mr. Elseworth and said, "Why do I have an incomplete? What's going on?" He said he had never received her paper. "Oh yes you did, Mr. Elseworth! Remember? I got a 98.6 on it!" He did remember. He said he remembered SEEING the paper even, and apologized profusely to Arleta, shuffling through the papers. "Oh dear, I don't know where it is. I'm so sorry. I must have misplaced it! I do remember seeing it though - and you did get a 98.6."

Finally, he just couldn't find it and apologized again for all the trouble he had caused her. Since he clearly remembered seeing the paper and giving it a 98.6, he gave her a 98.6 on the project, which was 80% of that semester's grade, so she got an A or B in the class.

She had never done the project.

Meanwhile, she wrote up her experiment in her psychology paper and turned it in to Ms. Compton saying, "This cannot go outside the walls of this room." Ms. Compton asked, "Why? Did you do anything illegal? Could it get you in trouble?"

"Well," said Arleta, "It could get both you and me in trouble."
"ME?" Asked the teacher.
"Yes, you. After all, you're the one who taught me exactly how to do this, and I tried it, and it worked!" Arleta said.

When she got the paper back from Ms. Compton it just said, "Hmmm" across the top. She got an A. Ms. Compton never told on her. The creation of a false memory had worked.

Only Arleta would have had the guts to apply her education so directly in such a scary way, but that's Arleta. Her enthusiasm for knowledge and experimentation exceeds her need to be perfectly safe and secure. She would go out on a limb in her thirst for understanding, because of her scientific curiosity.

And that's the hallmark of a scientist, I think. Curiosity. Wanting to TRY IT. Wanting to SEE IT work.

I was in freshman physics in college and we had a professor from a foreign country where the culture views women as weak and vulnerable. There were also some big, macho Arab guys in the class. This professor would rant and rave, yelling, "Do you BELIEVE in the LAWS OF PHYSICS? They are ABSOLUTE! You cannot VIOLATE THE LAWS OF PHYSICS!" and on and on.

One day he brought in the classic bed of nails and laid it in front of the class like a gauntlet. "OK!" he challenged. "Who here believes in the laws of physics!?" I raised my hand. I always sat in the front of the room because it kept me involved. He tried to ignore me but I wouldn't let him. "Anyone else?" Nope.

"If you TRULY BELIEVE in the LAWS OF PHYSICS, you will lay down on this bed of nails AND I will put a board on you and two of our biggest men will stand on you!" he shouted. "So let's see who really understands and believes in the LAWS OF PHYSICS!!!"

I was waving my hand frantically and he was studiously ignoring me. Finally I stood up and said, "You are ignoring me because I am small and female. That makes me wonder if YOU believe in the Laws of Physics! If YOU believe in the Laws of Physics you'll let me try out the bed of nails!

He turned pale and sweaty. This was not what he had had in mind. Yes, it's true that when you distribute your weight across many different points, no one point bears very much weight, so the touch of the nails is very small - very little pressure per nail because the pressure is so well distributed. Same goes for adding a board and putting some men on it. The board, across your body, distributes the weight of the men so that there is no one place on your body that is taking a lot of pressure. So it's safe.

The trick is to get onto the bed of nails without putting too much pressure on any one part of your body as you lower yourself onto it.

So I went over and carefully lowered myself onto the bed of nails. So far so good. Two big Arab guys stood up and got the board and laid it over me, then climbed up onto it. The room was tense and quiet and the professor was sweating profusely. I smiled. "Yep, it works! The Laws of Physics still work!"

He was very anxious to end the experiment though, and so we ended it. I felt no discomfort whatsoever, and I"m glad I got to try it! It was fun! And it was really fun to challenge the professor about HIS faith in the Laws of Physics that day! Hee hee. I think I had been influenced by Arleta all those years!

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