The efficiency of fish as a multi-faceted lesson

| May 28, 2012 | Reply

How can I be more efficient, both at work and elsewhere? How can I focus my efforts to be one of those people who gives annoying cliche, “110% effort?” I was recently reminded of a book that provides a metaphor for my personal quest to be efficient, but it also provides a powerful lesson on the topic of artificial boundaries.

First, a bit of background. About 12 years ago, I had the opportunity to audit several graduate-level seminars taught by philosopher Andy Clark while he was on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. Andy often stressed that cognition should not be conceptualized as merely the firing of neurons within a human skull. This idea is central to his writings. In a book Andy wrote in 1997, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, he tells a fish story. It is the scientific story of the astounding swimming efficiency of fish, and it is also a caveat that we humans are so utterly interconnected with our environments that we need to stop characterizing those things outside of our bodies and brains as obstacles to our accomplishments. The following excerpt is from page 219-220, the beginning of the chapter titled “Minds, Brains, and Tuna: a Summary and Brine.”

The swimming capacities of many fishes, such as dolphins and bluefin tuna, are staggering. These aquatic beings far outperform anything that medical science has so far produced. Such fish are both mavericks of maneuverability and, it seems, paradoxes of propulsion. It is estimated that the dolphin, for example, is simply not strong enough to propel itself at the speeds it is observed to reach. In attempting to unravel this mystery, two experts in fluid dynamics, the brothers Michael and George Triantafyllou, have been led to an interesting hypothesis: That the extraordinary swimming efficiency of certain fishes is due to an involved capacity to exploit and create additional sources of kinetic energy in the watery environment. Such fishes, it seems, exploit aquatic swirls, eddies, and vortices to “turbocharge” propulsion and aid maneuverability. Such fluid phenomenon sometimes occur naturally (e.g., where flowing water hits rock). But the fish’s exploitation of such external aids does not stop there. Instead, the fish actively creates a variety of vortices and pressure gradients (e.g. by flapping its tail) and then uses these to support subsequent speedy, agile behavior. By thus controlling and exploiting local environmental structure, the fish is able to produce fast starts on terms that make our oceangoing vessels look clumsy, ponderous and laggardly.

Image by Erich Vieth (of a sculpture I own)

Aided by a continuous parade of such vortices,”Triantafyllou and Triantafyllou point out, “it is even possible for fishes’ swimming efficiency to exceed 100%.” Ships and submarines reap no such benefits: they treat the aquatic environment as an obstacle to be negotiated and do not seek to subvert it to their own means by monitoring and massaging the fluid dynamics surrounding the whole.

The tale of the tuna reminds us that biological systems profit profoundly from local environmental structure. The environment is not best conceived solely as a problem domain to be negotiated. It is equally, and crucially, a resource to be factored into the solutions. This simple observation has, as we have seen, some far-reaching consequences.… Gone is the central executive in the brain… In place of this comforting image we must confront a vision of mind as a grab bag of other agencies whose computational rules are often best described by including aspects of the local environment (both in complex control loops and in a wide variety of informational transformations and manipulations).… It may for some purposes be wise to consider the intelligence system as a spatio-temporally extended process not limited by the tenuous envelope of skin and skull. Less dramatically, the traditional divisions among perception, cognition and action look increasingly unhelpful… The division between thought and action fragments….

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Category: Human animals, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

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