The Plasticity of Body Schema in Response to Tool Use
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When I flew a KC-135 StratoTanker, I was the aircraft.
I had a feeling of being that large. It wasn’t just me flying the machine. I was the machine.
You may get this feeling when you drive a car. As you get very good at driving, it is no effort at all to stay in your lane and keep yourself away from other cars. But when you first started, just making sure you kept the car centered in your lane took a lot of brainpower. The words in the previous 2 sentences gives it away. An experienced driver stays in his lane. A new driver is focused on keeping the car centered in the lane. The first is the person/car. The second is all about the car. Do you feel like the car sometimes? If it gets a bump, do you say ouch?
Think of a sport you are very, very good at. After hundreds of hours of practice, doesn’t it feel as if the skis, skates, or even the dribbling ball are an intimate part of you?
When I operated the KC-135 StratoTanker, I was the aircraft. I gingerly taxied around obstacles so my wing tip would not be injured. I knew instinctively how much to pull back and turn the yoke to go exactly where I needed to.
There were a few differences. When I lowered the flap handle, I had to look at the flaps to ensure they dropped. I couldn’t just feel them drop as if I had bent a finger or pointed a toe. Damage to the aircraft was more psychological than a physical pain. But I could feel the effect of the flaps on the aircraft. And psychological pain is still pain.
So, all in all, when I flew a KC-135 StratoTanker, I was the aircraft.
There were days when I would switch out and fly a 7,000 pound supersonic, twin engine T-38 in the morning, and then a four engine 300,000 pound StratoTanker in the afternoon. With the T-38 it felt more like strapping the aircraft to my back. Very much like strapping a parachute on and jumping into the wild blue yonder. With the KC-135, you made an input with the controls and there was always a pause as the lumbering giant reacted and slowly moved where you wanted it to. The T-38 seemed to react with just my thoughts. This was good when flying at 600 knots fingertip formation inches away from your buddies. That is, inches away from your buddies’ aircraft.
I found the same feeling of a plastic body schema follow me into another assignment. Although to some extent it was a personal pep talk. In 1998 I was promoted to full colonel in the Air Force. I had found previously that people always noticed a major and lieutenant colonel could not sneak into a room. But a full colonel? That was a whole new level. There was always a flashing red light over your head. Metaphorically speaking.
And then in 1999 I was assigned Reserve Forces Division Chief for the Joint Forces in the Pacific. This was a whole new level of responsibility beyond what I had experienced as a Logistics Center staff officer or an engineering supervisor. I had a $25M budget each year. This was just for the pay for the military personnel that my office was assigning throughout the Pacific Theater on a part time basis to cover critically important work that active duty personnel could not get to. That’s a lot of people and a lot of responsibility.
My personal pep talk to myself was to encourage myself to “go big”. My responsibilities were big, so I needed to think globally and across all 7 Reserve Forces organizations (Army, Navy, Marines, AF Reserves & Army Guard, AF Guard, and Coast Guard.). Don’t just come in the office and answer emails, I would tell myself, but make things happen. Keep the focus on the mission. Communicate. Break regulations when common sense and the mission demanded it. (“That’s why this chair belongs to a colonel!” I would remind myself.) But be vigilant, don’t break a law. Know the difference.
I guess there was a time as a baby or toddler when I was getting to know my own body. I learned to walk and talk. Then, as I grew, I used other tools like forks or shovels or StratoTankers. My sense of my body, my schema, could change plastically with whatever tool I was using.
Then I applied this body schema idea to my adult responsibilities in the Pacific Theater. So at first, I adapted plastically to be a better pilot. Then I adapted plastically to be a better person.
But, Alice, let’s go further down this rabbit hole. There are cyborgs among us today with artificial limbs and even artificial sensors. Vets who have lost legs walk and even run. Children born without hearing can hear. Profoundly color blind people can hear colors. New breakthroughs are provided to people every day. Artificial eyes that really work will be common. These folks, these cyborgs-but-no-less-human, find that they also have a plastic body schema that allows them to incorporate their robotic selves into their own body image.
It makes me think: Am I the core consciousness that manipulates whatever must be manipulated? How much of my body could be replaced with hardware and software and still be me? Is there ever a point where I would stop being me because my body has changed so much? Or would the essence of “me” ultimately inhabit whatever body I became?
Am I ultimately the combination of consciousness and my body, but that whole person can use tools as though they were my total self? Um, I’m not even sure what I just said. What do these words mean: mind, soul, body, ego, id, tools, consciousness?
When this consciousness (that is myself) thinks of myself, how much of it is me and how much of it is the tool that I have plastically incorporated into my body schema?
Wait! I am not myself alone; my friends are the rest of me. I act and interact and react based on others. With all this feedback between others an myself does it really come down to “clothes make the man”?! Attitude. Confidence. Fake it ’til you make it.
Enough! In fact, after all this thought, I have come to the conclusion that I am body and soul together and that when I move on to the next life, that is what I will be there as well. But the essence of me, my consciousness or soul, has spent a lifetime attempting to discipline my body.
After all, God made us endlessly plastic, to be able to shape even our very selves to His will.
What do you think? Are you truly at your core, only your consciousness? If so, what is that? On the other hand, if you are soul and body, would you be you if you were half cyborg? 90% cyborg?
In the end it is enough to ask: Is there a “you” which has shaped yourself over time to be the person you wanted to be? Do you feel you have the power and the control to shape yourself, and therefore your life, to achieve your dreams? Plastically.
Leave a comment and let me know.