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Ropes and the Perception of Risk

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Couple days ago I had an amazing experience at Kos Island (Greece) and tried a ropes course, where I had to pass through all the stages of the cool facility, going from one column to another over the ropes and bricks with increasing complexity. It looked like this:

DSC_1390a

Six phases x three wings x two levels i.e. 36 stages of fun and challenge for my equilibrium. Beyond the unique experience, I learned something very interesting from the instructor (on the pic above, he is at the middle stage, waiting for me).

After I have passed several stages, he said to me: “You know that there are three points of support, required for equilibrium here. One is the left leg, another is right leg, while the third is usually the hand.” Indeed, I have mentioned that to feel stable, I had to hold the rope (or anything else available) with (at least 🙂 one hand. “BUT the interesting part is that you DO NOT HAVE TO HOLD the rope. It is enough just TO TOUCH it. Even slightly with the side of the finger”. Obviously I have tried it and it was amazing! I could relatively freely walk while tip of the finger was touching the rope, and at the same time I could not walk from the moment after it was detached. So for me it was no more the holding rope, but just the reference point.

Immediately as an engineer I thought about the negative feedback that my brain required to do this task, I thought about sensing lines from power electronics, I thought about feedback in control system of my brain, I thought about continuity of nerve that is running from my finger to some place in the brain and realized that this third point, required for the equilibrium was not actually the finger itself, but that place in the brain that required this sensing for better control of my body.

Now I need to distinguish my experience from a single line “Tightrope walking” (funambulism) or slacklining where there are a totally different biomechanics and brain control of the balance.

tightrope-walker

I am talking about purely psychological effect of the fear of the failure where you can “easily” go at the height of half a meter and make not a single step at fifty meters. I am talking about effect that you slowly go two thirds of the path and then run freely when you see the end.

This was very much related to the work I am doing these days on Risk Modeling in Complex Systems generally and on Perception of Risk particularly. I shall release some interesting parts of the work here… By now, to touch the Perception of Risk model, I would like to mention two major components of the risk – Perception of the probability of failure and Perception of the impact of failure. Each of those components got multiple assessment biases and this is a whole separate talk by itself. In this case of equilibrium reference point, the signal in the brain was impacting the part, responsible for mitigation of the failure probability component of risk perception, since the impact of the failure was same. The mitigation was possible because of the constant signal to my brain that in case of loss of balance, would ensure that the hand is very close to the rope to catch it. If this is true, then the brain mapping (if it is going one day possible not in static lab conditions) of walking person at the same height with and without the finger touched, would show the area of brain that is responsible for the Perception of Probability component of risk, while the different heights would expose the area responsible for the Perception of the Failure Impact.

Interesting that once I passed some stage the second time it was much simpler to detach the finger and in some cases even not use the hand at all and stretch out my arms to increase the moment of inertia for better balance. It was nearly impossible for me to do it for the first time per stage due to the lack of risk assessment and perceptional bias (a.k.a. fear)))).

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Author: Andrey Gabdulin

www.gabdulin.com Product Development

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