Personal Stochasm

It has lately come to my attention that I may be missing something. I suppose at my age, that should come as no surprise -I’m always missing something or other; often it’s my keys, or maybe where I decided to store the scissors so I wouldn’t keep cutting myself on random forays into the spoon drawer. I don’t think those are what my attention is being called to witness, however; it is something grander; something which I can theoretically share with others –must share with others if it is to work, in fact.

I have to confess that although I am addicted to the twittering of birds in the deep green of leaves; the soothing hiss of wind riffling through the canopy of trees on a stormy day; the crunch of my shoes on the cushion of autumn litter carpeting a trail on which I am not yet lost; and even the random buzz of gossip from the next table in a Food Court -even though I enjoy sound, I would not sit in a coffee shop hoping to write a Harry Potter sequel.

Of course I’ve never actually tried that, even by changing all the names and staging it in a kindergarten to disguise any similarity with the original. Anyway, it’s not the plot that would discourage me… Okay, it would -but more likely it would be the distraction of people laughing, scraping their chairs and dropping their cutlery on the floor.

Maybe it stems from university when I found I could never study in the library because the people constantly wandering past usually reminded me it was time for a coffee or a walk outside. No, the quiet of an empty room with an uncomfortable chair was the key to a successful memory for me, I think.

And yet, perhaps creativity is different than cramming for an exam –educare, rather than inducare, as it were: a process of drawing ideas out of me, not stuffing them in. But I digress.

In an era of social distancing and wariness of others, I had not given much thought of late to mingling, let alone writing in public. Hugging, yes; shaking hands, of course. But taking my computer to a corner table in MacDonald’s seemed unlikely to awaken anything close to creativity.

Still, there was that article in the Conversation that argued otherwise. It was an essay by Onno van der Groen from Edith Cowan University in Australia: https://theconversation.com/like-to-work-with-background-noise-it-could-be-boosting-your-performance-119598 When he wrote the essay, he was a Research Fellow in the school of medical and health sciences at the university, and he presented some studies which suggest that ‘our senses are being bombarded with “noise”, and by that I mean random interference… small amounts of noise can actually be beneficial for our senses. The phenomenon is known as “stochastic resonance”.’ I’m impressed with the name.

At any rate, he goes on to point out that ‘Sometimes your brain cells fire randomly. There is more and more evidence that this random activity of your brain cells can be beneficial for your perception and cognitive performance.’ His data have suggested that ‘brain noise is a crucial part of human perception, decision making and being able to see from different perspectives.’

The caveat he issues as a sort of disclaimer near the end of his essay, though, is a worrisome in someone like me who is no longer in his salad days: ‘Elderly individuals might also have more brain noise, which might be associated with a decline in cognitive performance. Small amounts of noise can improve performance, but excessive amounts degrade performance.’ It’s a fine line to walk, I think. And maybe my increasingly entangled and enplaqued neurons are desperately hoping for no more ambient noise than the six o’clock evening CBC news -the only stuff they still recognize…

Chastened, and yet unwilling to cede total control to my  brain, I decided on an ensconcement in the well-ventilated, high ceilinged Food Court I used to visit in the  pre-Covid days. My remaining grey matter barely recognized it in its pandemic configuration, however. Most of the tables were either gone, or at least missing any extra chairs that might be moved around to flout the social distancing requirements of the time. But there was a kind of perimeter shelf with a skeleton staff of stools that would do very well, so I took my wax-cardboard cup replica to the only stool still empty of flesh and sat down -well up, actually.

I turned on the laptop and waited for inspiration to settle on me, in bits and pieces maybe, like -I don’t know- falling leaves in an autumn wood.

Hey, that wasn’t a bad metaphor… I opened up a new page in Word, and started a sentence with it. Then, two masked construction guys ambled into the aisle in front of me and stood there. One of them mumbled something about the kind of people coming to the Food Court nowadays. They were looking at the lineup to Timmies forming behind me, though, so I didn’t take it personally, or whatever. Anyway, they didn’t stare at me; it was just stochastic resonance, I guess.

The physically-distanced line behind me was moving fairly quickly but seemed to stall with a mother and her screaming son taking up residence a mere spitting distance from me. In fact, that’s exactly what the kid was doing -but at his mother, fortunately. She was masked, so she couldn’t reciprocate and the kid was taking full advantage of it. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” he kept screaming while the watchful eyes of the lineup alternated between the maskless child and his mother, but stochastically distributed.

I wondered if maybe it had something to do with ‘stochastic resonance’, so I was quick to type the idea of eyes behaving that way onto my still almost empty screen.

Suddenly, one elderly be-masked man, left his place on those little feet painted on the floor to remind people of the distance required in the line, and knelt down a meter or so away from the child. The corners of his eyes reflected an obvious smile. He reached into his pocket, produced a wrapped candy, and offered it to the little boy.

In ordinary times it would have seemed like a kind gesture, but I could hear the sudden intake of breath behind the mother’s mask, then a muffled voice warning her child that it might have Covid on it. The little boy, however, broke free from his mother’s grasp and ran over and grabbed the proffered candy.

All of us who watched were on the old man’s side, and one of the construction guys still standing in the aisle mumbled that the man was more likely to catch Covid from the kid than give it to him. The mother, however, started yelling at the man and calling him an unthinking vector that she was going to report.

‘Unthinking vector’ -another good phrase. I was beginning to understand what der Groen was talking about. But just then, the little boy, trying to evade his mother with the candy by now tightly clenched in his little fist, ran over and knocked my arm just as I was picking up my coffee.

A few drops made it onto the construction guy, but, mask or no, I could tell he was smiling now. “Poor old man,” I could hear him mutter to his friend. “The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief…” he added.

Othello -and from a construction guy! My goodness, I thought as I typed it into the computer, then gathered up my things to leave. I could almost hear the place resonating as I walked away…

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