A Matter of Physics

At the January NAMM show, I conferred at the hotel bar with longtime Electronic Musician technical editor Scott Wilkinson. Wilkinson writes EM's Tech

At the January NAMM show, I conferred at the hotel bar with longtime Electronic Musician technical editor Scott Wilkinson. Wilkinson writes EM's “Tech Page” (probably because he holds dual degrees in music and physics), and for the past nine years has held the position of head researcher in sensory and perceptual biophysics for Los Angeles' Twolane University. Naturally, our conversation started with a discussion of acoustics. At some point, I remarked on how much mixing sound outdoors messes with your mind when the weather changes. The wind blows up, clouds come in, and the whole show sounds entirely different.

“That's an excellent example of the relative dynamics of perceptual mass,” Scott observed. I found this statement curious, because it sounded as though it just might be coherent, in which case — at that point in the evening — I would be rather impressed with his stamina. Taking in the full measure of his statement, I aptly replied, “Say what?”

Scott explained that he had recently been reading several 1970s-era studies by German physicist and psychologist Dr. Poundo Hefeweten, who conducted a series of tests in which subjects performed tasks while he altered the circumstances, taking measurements the entire time.

One test involved 126 people riding stationary bicycles as Hefeweten varied the friction and, by extension, the riders' level of effort. Hefeweten recorded continuous measurements of the actual force applied to the pedals. As one would expect, with more friction applied, the riders delivered greater pressure to the pedals.

Hefeweten's great discovery came by spontaneous inspiration. One morning one of the riders showed up complaining of not sleeping much the night before and proceeded to describe it in some detail. His patience exhausted, Hefeweten moved to stop the rider from continuing his story. But then the doctor noticed that the rest of the riders, who moments ago had been raring to hit the bikes, now were showing signs of tiredness: one rubbed his eyes, another yawned, a third nodded out.

Thinking quickly, Hefeweten announced it was time to get on the bikes and begin. He expected to find the riders exerting more energy to apply the same force than they would have had they felt awake.

In fact, what Hefeweten recorded started a new branch of physics, which later inspired British psychologist Rupert Sheldrake to form his Theory of Causation Involving Morphogenetic Fields (1982). The riders, as expected, did exert more effort, but they also exerted more force to get the same rotational speed. The friction being unaltered meant that because the riders believed it was harder to pedal to get the same speed, it was!

The implications of this were enormous; it was tantamount to saying that their common perception had changed the physics of the situation. Fantastic as it sounded, further tests continued to support the hypothesis until it became at least respectable to be involved in researching it.

A silvery thought emerged into the squalid darkness of my brain. “Scott, how broadly does this effect apply?” I inquired. “Ah,” he said, “you're beginning to get it. And you, a drummer for all these years! I would have thought this would have occurred to you long before. Yes, it applies to band equipment, too. When you move your gear at 2:30 in the morning after playing a full gig, and it feels twice as heavy as when you hauled it out of your house, that might well be because it is heavier — measurably so.”

My mind was barely able to contain itself as I struggled with what he had said, but it was Scott himself who had once told me, “If you don't think so, don't think.” So I ordered a double, and to be honest, I don't remember too much after that. But I must admit that Scott's words about perceptual mass came back to me the next morning when I attempted to lift my head from the pillow.