Wilton columnist: Brain conquers town forest

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

I’m a big fan of the trails in the Town Forest (located in the “Wilton Alps” off Branch Brook Road) having traversed them for some years now. I’ve been back trekking them in earnest for the last six months after more than two years’ hiatus. You see, our beloved dog Tanzi (about whom I’ve written regularly in this column) and I would walk them together with great mutual enjoyment. When she died, it took away much of my enthusiasm for that route — too many memories.

But with a puppy arriving chez Hudspeth and old enough perhaps in another half-year to traverse the Town Forest with me, I figured I’d better get back into trail-walking shape. More recently, I’ve been jogging (certainly not very fast) over the Blue course that runs — about four miles, I think — around the perimeter of the Forest.

The trails are highly social-distance compatible and also very well-maintained thanks to both our town and the mountain-biking club that uses them intensively and also works on their maintenance. That being said, it is in the nature of trails such as these that there are many roots running fast and furious at various angles across significant portions of them and likewise rocks, many on edge and jutting up diagonally or directly perpendicular to the path. I used to find myself tripping over them with some regularity, but then I discovered that as long as I looked down and focused carefully on what I was seeing, for the most part I avoided tripping even as I moved progressively faster.

As I was jogging along the trail and across these mini-obstacles a few weeks ago, I found myself reflecting on the fact that somehow my legs could consistently avoid these obstacles if I concentrated my eyesight. In that reflective moment (still concentrating on looking down), it dawned on me what a complex mathematical calculation our brains make when they do this kind of work. If we’re walking along a largely level and smooth surface, one could understand the brain needing only to send a very simple set of instructions to the legs: “move one leg in front of the other and continuously repeat doing so until I tell you otherwise.”

However, on irregular surfaces with many protuberances like those rocks and roots, the eyes have to transmit continuously to the brain the rapidly changing picture they are seeing. Then the brain has to do some really complex geometry to convert the angle of the eyes’ perception of the hazard in relation to the motion of the legs and to do so continuously in a dynamic and ever-changing environment. That being said, we have no conscious perception of how our brains are doing this remarkable work, nor would I begin to be able to calculate at speed myself the various geometric transformations that are going on continuously as the brain takes information from the eyes not only on what they see but also on their ever-changing angle of perception and turns that into instructions to a part of the body removed multiple feet from the point of the eyes’ observation. Wow!

As I thought about these rather simple everyday facts in this new light, I recalled information I learned recently about how incredibly versatile babies’ brains are, especially in their acquisition of linguistic information. In fact, it is said that their seeming babbling is actually their attempt at perfecting by constant repetition certain building blocks of language they are hearing and assiduously striving to replicate.

I also thought of other information I’ve recently encountered about people for whom almost miraculous innate abilities are discovered through weird circumstances — as happened, for example, to Derek Amato (check him out on YouTube) who dove into a pool’s shallow end, hitting his head seriously but not life-threateningly. Amazingly thereafter he discovered that he had suddenly acquired pianistic ability at concert-master level when he had never played before. (With this “sudden savant-ness,” however, has come serious brain-overload issues including debilitating headaches.)

What is locked in our brains beyond our conscious reach yet in use every day? What is capable of being unlocked for the conscious mind’s use in the right circumstances? What would it be like to tap into those brain-power resources in a conscious way without debilitating consequences? Reflecting on those calculations carrying me uneventfully through the Town Forest, I stand in awe of the brainpower we all possess and wonder what else could be released to achieve more of our full potential.