I play a series of games on a website called Lumosity.com. They specialize in brain training games and those of you who know me well probably realize that my brain needs lots of training. The games are not like the video games that our beloved obsessive gamer friends know and love. Games like Donkey Kong have rules and set patterns built into the game. If you take the time, you can learn these rules and patterns to the point where you can win the game.
Lumosity games are not like this. Lumosity games deal with, to varying extents, randomness. There are rules, yes, but there isn’t any way to learn the rules and patterns to guarantee winning. You play the games within the rules but the only way to win is to be able to handle randomness. Skills like task switching and information processing are more important than the rules and patterns.
As I was playing “Memory Match”, a game that displays a sequence of objects one after the other with the player telling the system that it matches the previous object or not, I became aware of a deep anxiety within me. There are only 3 objects, usually a circle, a square, and a triangle. The rules are easy. Is the current object the same as the previously displayed object? Yes or No. It’s that easy. Deceptively easy.
It’s not so easy. You can learn the rules very well but when you play the game you have to deal with the fact that you cannot anticipate the next object. There is no way you can go on autopilot, destroy the monsters, and get to the next level. Every moment of the game you have to be right there, right now. You have to sit in a state of randomness.
I don’t know about you but I like to feel like I have some sort of control over my world. I like to believe in causality. Playing these games bring up an anxiety in me, a fear that I’m not in control, that no one is in control. That life is random.
I can hear people saying, “But Karin, life isn’t a random generator. The randomness that you experience playing Memory Match is not the same thing as life.” Isn’t it? Memory Match actually is causal. The objects are determined; the timing is determined by the player, there are only two possible responses and only one acceptable answer. The experience of randomness is limited by the rules. But life, LIFE, well, there are too many variables. Even the objects and timing are variable. The causal relationships are great and many. We experience the game of life over time and we superstitiously apply “rules” that may not exist.
Let’s look at the example of “heads or tails.” A friend recently brought this example up and I had read about it previously. If you set a task to flip a coin a hundred times to someone and you want to verify that they actually did the task, unless they already understand randomness, you can verify that it actually was random. How? Look for long runs of heads or of tails.
Why is this important? Because our minds like to establish control and order. Our brains take the whole 100 flips as a whole rather than looking at each individual flip. So they might get to 4 or 5 in a row and their minds tell them “wait a minute, there’s already so many heads, surely it’s time for a tail”, and they switch back over to tails. But the previous flip had NOTHING to do with it. It’s only our need to create order and pattern that “tells the teacher” on us and we are caught, cheating.
I can see this effect in Memory Match. I’ll have 7 or 9 squares all in a row that can only be random. Of course then my mind tries to make a pattern out of that, thinking the next will be the same and I miss the sudden triangle. I end up with a visceral experience of randomness in its truest form and I feel anxiety.
Deep in my soul, I know that randomness affects us much more than we are aware. I see that all of our attempts to control and explain things are really ways we manage the randomness of our world. It’s why we have theories and hypotheses rather than absolute truths. Why everything is open to debate and subject to change at any time.
Is there any wonder why I’m anxious? I can point to two specific incidences where I truly experienced pure randomness in my life. There are others, but these two, well, I didn’t, I couldn’t see them coming. The first was when a Jeep Cherokee dropped on top of my car as I was driving it. One second I was moving along at 5 miles an hour in rush hour. The next second I was a foot from a concrete wall with the back of my car smashed in and an upside Cherokee behind me. How random is that, even with all the causes?
The second was just this last weekend when I went white water rafting. We were on the final stretch of our trip, water was relatively calm. We had tucked into a pocket to wait a bit to let the boats in front of us dock. One second I was in the boat, the next I was in the water. I have no recollection of being put there. Was there a cause? Yes, the river hefted me out of the boat, but my experience was of pure randomness.
The anxious part of me thinks about this, wondering when the next random thing will happen. I try to “be ready” for anything that happens and I can’t do that. It’s exhausting and there are too many variables. I try to not worry about it. I try to not be attached to anything. I play my games and become even more aware of randomness.
The question now is, how to ride the flow of randomness. How to plan and be active within a random universe. How to be able to adjust. How to continue to Act, rather than freezing up and becoming resistant. How to appreciate the randomness rather than condemn it. How to Live……