Just like the above example of connecting dots, we all go through a sort of “cognitive travel” repeatedly throughout each day. Driving to work, you see someone’s turn signal; you go from simply seeing a light flashing to realizing they’re about to change lanes. Approaching the parking lot at work, you see there are no open spaces near the building, and you realize you’re going to have to walk through the drizzle. You remember that you left your umbrella at home, and you decide that you’re not going to walk – you’re going to sprint for the door. At your desk, you see that things have been moved around… and then you see the birthday present your coworkers left in front of your monitor. You’d arrived at the office thinking nobody knows it’s your birthday, but now it’s clear they do.
Just like dealing with physical and time-based separation, the conceptual figuring-out process can also take place both internally on a microscopic basis, or on a much larger external scale. Our systems “know” how to derive contextual meanings from physical sensations – extreme hot or cold, sense of threat, huger, thirst, the need to empty the bladder or bowels, and all the other physical stimuli we take in on a daily basis. Some 15 senses are continuously informing our physical vehicles about the world around us, and our brains/bodies interpret that information and decide what to do about it.
The fresh scents and warm sunlight of a fine spring day lifts your spirits, even before you figure out that the chores can wait. The sun is bright, so you squint and put on your sunglasses. The ground is wet underfoot, so you jump back instinctively and turn to find another route. Whether you’re breathing or itching or spreading your arms wide to regain your balance after you stumble, your body is interpreting myriad sensations (many of which you’ll never consciously detect) with an intelligence that keeps you balanced and kicks you into action. It can happen in a moment – even less – but your systems still go through a complex process of figuring out what to do.
Indeed, our combined Temporal and Conceptual gap-crossing leads us to Action, or perhaps more accurately, Reaction. One would hope so, anyway. It’s one thing to transmit information from its sensory origin to brain, and then make sense of it. But the human system often needs to actually do something with that information. One of the main reasons the human body picks up sensory input, to begin with, is to maintain homeostasis. The senses tell the heart and lungs when to speed up or slow down to keep oxygen levels steady. They detect pain to help the body avoid damage. They notice potential danger in sights, sounds, tastes, and touch, and (ideally) the rest of the system acts on that information.
Physical, Temporal, and Conceptual Distances all combine in Reactive Distance, lengthening or shortening it, depending on their own degrees of separation. Since we live in a 3-dimensional world, subject to the laws of physics, you can’t react more quickly than the physical bounds of a situation. You can’t make your response faster than the time gaps included in the situation. And you can’t rush the meaning-making process that lets you wrap your head around what’s going on. The dependencies on these three elements certainly make things more… interesting.
Take slamming on the brakes while you’re driving, for example. Driver reaction time ranges from .07 seconds (bare minimum) to 3 seconds, with 2.3 seconds being the average. Considering everything that needs to happen – the transmission of sensory data, the translation of electrical signals into chemical ones, and then back again to electrical, the interpretation of what’s happening, and the decision (conscious or unconscious) about how to react, and then the return communication to the body about what to do in response – under three seconds is pretty speedy.
But when you’re traveling at 75mph, even 2.3 seconds is a long time. According to the Car Stopping Distance Calculator, at 75mph (121km/hr), in 2.3 seconds your vehicle will travel 253 feet (77 meters) before you “see the hazard, decide to brake and actually apply the brakes and is directly proportional to speed.” That’s called the “Thinking Distance”, and only after that’s done, does the braking distance of 281 feet (86 meters) take effect. The total stopping distance is 534 feet, or 163 meters – the length of nearly two football fields. And about 20% of that is covered just while you’re perceiving and acting up on a hazard. This is under ideal conditions, for an alert driver on a dry surface, traveling in a well-maintained car.
No matter how sharp and quick we imagine ourselves, no matter how well-trained we may be, our systems are still limited by temporal and conceptual distance, which prevent us from immediately interacting with our surroundings. Not factoring that in, and failing to adjust your behavior accordingly (e.g., driving at a safe speed and distance behind the car in front of you) is a contributing factor in many a serious car accident – and plenty of other catastrophes.
It’s fine if you successfully handle physical, temporal, and conceptual distance, but if you remain passive and non-reactive, that cancels everything out. Listening to your co-workers and never bothering to respond to their attempts at conversation, doesn’t do much for your working relationship (or your future at the company). Putting your hand on a hot pan handle and feeling the burn, but not pulling back, is a great way to spend the afternoon in the ER instead of having a picnic in the park.
Failing to react appropriately to incoming information has caused a whole lot of confusion, amusement, and hurt in our world. We’re constantly being inundated with sensory information of every kind, and we have plenty of opportunities to react. But we have a tendency to to misinterpret, screw things up, and otherwise come up with a completely inappropriate response – the key ingredients of generations of global suffering. Feature-length movies have been based on basic breakdowns in communication, as have countless broken marriages and armed conflicts on the world stage. Without a steady stream of catastrophic failures from inappropriate responses to misinterpreted meaning, the world would be a very different place, indeed. And we probably wouldn’t have the Darwin Awards.