Brains Explained: Vibration all the Way Down

There is a story with the infamous ending “Turtles all the way down,” which means two opposite things. Once you understand the deeper meaning, you’ll understand your most important biorhythms, and how to tune them up.

Mostly the story mocks simple-minded people. A thousand years ago an unnamed guru said the world is supported on a turtle, but couldn’t say what the turtle rested on.  A hundred years ago a little old lady, believing the Earth to be flat, made the same claim to scientist William James:

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly,

“It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down.”

Fair enough.  Infinite stacks of turtles, or infinite stacks of any real objects don’t fit well in finite space.  So the lady’s version of what holds up Earth lacks support, and thus falls flat.

But other infinite stacks work fine.  In computer science, for example, the concept of infinite regress shows up in iterative approximations, or when a program invokes itself (recursion).  In geometry, some patterns contain smaller copies of themselves, patterns inside patterns (fractals). In those cases, the phrase “all the way down” represents nested multiscale interactions, among the most elegant structures possible. That’s the kind of simplicity scientists love, because it lets one theory cover everything. Let’s call it a multi-scale theory. So simple it defies logic.

For example, music is built of multi-scale vibrations.  Beats, quarter-beats, sixteenth beats, fundamental notes and overtone harmonics, consonant chords of notes, predictable progressions of chords, repetitive sonata form.  I propose here that human bodies ring with similar multiscale vibrations, whose ultra-faint, ultra-high frequencies convey sensation and implement motor control.

Coherent vibrations explain bodies so well you don’t need anything else. Human bodies absolutely rattle with vibrations, from circadian rhythms down to myofascial ultrasound. Vibration all the way down.

The Vibrational Bandwidth Stack

Take this very moment, as you read this sentence. While the paper (or screen) is fixed in space, your eye must move in order to see its subtle shapes of bright and dark.  Muscles swing and vibrate the eye to release showers of fresh data, using all kinds of movements, ultra-fast atop slow. A few big lurches per second (called saccades) re-aim your eyeball toward interesting spots, like corners or edges, spots which promise refinement of your brain’s blurry hunches by zooming in.

Moving your eyes semi-intentionally is the normal process of looking. But being made of jelly, the eyeball also wiggles after each yank, adding subtle quick back-and-forth motions (micro-saccades) dancing around the region of interest.  Within the micro-saccades are even tinier and faster wiggles that only the eyeball itself can sense.

Same for hearing. The brain sends boosting signals to the ear, using its predictions to anticipate arriving sound.  Especially to locate a sudden scary sound like a twig-snap, a task honed by millionths of a second.  The brain doesn’t just predict sound into the ears, but into sensitive skin all over the body. When sound impacts you, the waves go everywhere. Ideally you hear sound not just with your ears but with your face, your neck, your chest, your gut and back.  Ideally, your physical experience is unified enough that “sound” and “feeling” merge, no telling the senses apart. Hearing and mechanical sense shouldn’t be separate, in fact their nerve inputs overlap enormously.

Hearing and seeing are external senses, not as important as awareness of one’s own internal configuration. Every animal must feel its body to live. The internal sense (interoception) is built from mechanical vibrations in bones and muscles, vibrations which constitute the information field of the body.

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What do those vibrations look like?  We can build our way down from the big slow obvious ones, into the realms of invisible and inaudible. Any muscular motion is fair game, even if it doesn’t repeat. Here goes:

Breathing takes a few seconds per breath.  Waving at a friend takes a second or two per wave. Heartbeats and walking clock in at one to a few (beats/strides) per second, as does shaking someone’s hand. Those muscle motions happen faster than the “biorhythms” medicine usually talks about (like circadian rhythms and menstrual rhythms), but are slow by data-flow standards. Most motions slow enough to see use big external muscles like the bulging “heads” of biceps or quadriceps. 

Smaller, faster motions deep inside you are easier to miss. They originate from muscles close to the spine like the multifidus and psoas.  But they carry much more information. Aiming a laser pointer at a wall reveals body tremor wiggling ten or twenty times per second (Hz). A basso profundo might sing a low note severalfold higher, say 50 Hz, and a soprano a high note ringing fifty times faster at 1000 Hz, with harmonics even higher adding to vocal texture (children can squeak even higher than that). Singing proves humans can vibrate at least that fast.

The threshold of consciousness

But this is where consciousness fails. Frequencies higher than 10-20,000 Hz are beyond human hearing (technically ultrasound), so it’s easy to think our bodies can’t make or use such information. But as engineers know, higher frequencies carry more information, ad infinitum. In fact inside human bodies, ultrasound carries so much information, merely keeping track of it would tie our brains in knots.  Ultrasound is unconscious on purpose, for maximum throughput and bandwidth.

In fact, it’s a law of Nature (pointed out by physics Nobelist Richard Feynman in 1959) that the tiniest things store the densest information. Claude Shannon showed that fast-changing things carry the most bandwidth. In other words, the tighter the resolution in space and time of any signal, the more data it can carry.  So vibrations in a body aren’t created equal, not at all. Information is mostly carried by the smallest, faintest, fastest ones, which sustain and drive the others. That is, they form a carrier wave of interoception and control.

To find the central carrier-wave, we ought to look for precise timing signatures and low-amplitude motions. What are the tiniest, fastest signals in a body?  Which vibrations carry the most information? Let’s look as tiny as we can, at the quantum scale.

The quantum of muscular motion is molecular, as actin and myosin filaments slide past each other, consuming energy to tug a tiny bit.  Every whole muscle is made of thousands of such fibers which fire in concert. A single filament’s length is one millionth of a meter, that is one millionth of the hand-wave at our friend. The filament’s motion endures about one billionth of a second, almost a million-fold faster than anything humans can hear.  Yet because our muscles are made of those nanoscopic fibers, in aggregate those molecular tugs create everything we feel and do.

The principle of aggregating muscle pulses is like ocean surf, but backwards.  When a wave crashes in the surf, a big, single, heaving thing turns into millions of tiny hissing droplets.  Big breaks up into small, all by itself, which is all that can ever happen without adding energy. But life can add energy, so it can run that process backwards, amplifying little things into big ones.

Take a tight flock of seabirds, flapping as they skim the waves. Their vocal cries synchronize their nervous systems tighter than milliseconds, and their eyes see the flapping of each other’s wings almost as precisely. So all the time, each bird can see and hear exactly how her fellows flap, and can arrange her wing-flaps right in line, dead center. Meaning her brain can amplify the tiny, subtle correlations of collective resonance, then add her own energy to sharpen up the central peak. In this arrangement each bird takes in only tiny signals, but by timing magic makes the whole flock heave as one. Turning small and fast to big and slow is the opposite of surf.

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So tiny muscle firings, synchronized and lined up just so, produce gross motions in our bodies, just like single flapping birds produce a flowing flock.  How could the brain resolve its timing sharp enough to make that work?  By recycling the “wasted” information from those same muscle firings.

The brain as frequency manager 

Human brains are special-purpose timing processors, encased in solid bone and kept at constant temperature, computing by using nanoscopic wavefronts passing inside neurons.  In function a brain is roughly a vibration-replicator, anticipating and sculpting vibrations, as fed by echoes from the recent past. Human brains send about a million neural pulses out to muscle fibers every second, and receive about million pulses back from neural sensors. Every tiny “pluck” between actin and myosin filaments, as triggered by a pulse, radiates ultrasound waves in all directions. If those plucks add up coherently—the brain’s goal—then some wavefronts will be strong enough to trigger pulses back, telling the brain what’s going on and how to make it better.  These are the same dynamics a “supercollider” uses to shape its packets of protons. It uses the process of tracking precisely-timed kicks.

Please bear with me while I calculate some nervous system bandwidths. Or skip the next four paragraphs, restarting with the phrase “grand mystery.” So let’s do the numbers: first interoceptive bandwidth, then visual.

How many interoceptive nano-vibrations might fit inside a human body?  Fifty kilograms of muscle roughly takes up fifty litres, each containing 1015  cubic chunks of one  micron on a side (the size of an actin filament, cubed).  Of course independent fixed chunks are nothing like smooth, ever-moving vibrations. But chunks make calculating information easy. By that admittedly clunky standard, at any one time a body contains 5*1016  volumetric elements (voxels), meaning roughly 1016 bytes of information capacity.  Now multiply that by frequency (109 /sec) to get an upper bound on internal bandwidth of 1025  bytes/second (ten million billion billion).  1025  bytes/second is the maximum bandwidth we can hope for in a body. That bandwidth is the resource converting molecular tugging to motion.

In particular, precise synchrony determines whether motor output is efficient vs. inefficient.  In the efficient version, micro-tugs synchronize into macro-tugs. In the inefficient version, the microtugs are jumbled, they cancel each other, and dissipate as heat instead of force.  Sculpted microvibrations are also the best way for muscles to nudge clumsy blood-cells through narrow capillaries. And the only way to sense squishy soft mucus clogging squishy soft lungs, and the only way to aim muscular force to expel it.

How does visual resolution compare to the crazy 1025  bytes/second bandwidth of interoception?  Imagine your whole 3D visual world has the same resolution as a high-definition TV. That is, imagine a Virtual Reality environment having HDMI spatial resolution (5 pixels/mm) spanning a cube 40m on a side. (This flight of simulation fancy is just for calculation, it isn’t how brains actually work….that’s actually the point). The total number of volume elements (voxels) in the simulator-cube is  (40*5000)3, i.e. 8*1015  voxels, or 8 peta-voxels.  That spatial resolution is insane by current standards of VR technology (and also MRI tomography). But it’s is still less than we calculated for interoception.

The brain as creative artist

The grand mystery is this:  our bodies, and also separately our eyes, have spatial resolution in the neighborhood of 1016  dots at least. But our spinal cords, and also separately our eyes, receive as input only 106  neural pulses per second. The ratio between the two is ten billion to one. Meaning (roughly) that the brain synthesizes and confabulates ten billion dots for every actual data point it gets.  By this calculation, our brains make up 99.9999999% of what we see and feel.

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Likewise, the nervous system runs at up to a billion “clock cycles” per second, but our conscious minds can only manage a few words or thoughts per second.  By this calculation, our conscious brains miss 99.999999% of our internal processing. Thus in terms of both data and time, humans brains basically fake it.

The proof of a good idea is how much work it does.  Here are some teasers for applying these principles of vibration and confabulation to your life:

  • The spine is the center of everything. Nanovibrations run fastest down the center of the spine and myofascial tissue, making the spine the physical channel, akin to an optical fiber, containing the carrier wave.  A central spine is the perfect trunk-line for coordinating metabolism, interoception, muscular motion, and breath. In fact people with perfect spinal and breath control, like Harry Houdini and the Iceman Wim Hof, can “clench” their spines and breath muscles so that most muscular energy is intentionally “wasted” as heat to keep them warm (i.e. muscular activity for thermogenesis, not motion). A bonus is that according to deep geometric principles, when a spine is operating optimally it ought to feel ecstatically extended and inflated, enlightened in multiple senses. Spinal bliss is what humans ought to feel all the time.
  • Emotions are vibrations too   Certain sounds made by many species, not just humans, originate in specific spinal zones, and carry emotions:  whining, roaring, laughing, gasping, snarling, moaning, crying. 
  • Emotional connection cross-correlates vibrations  Eye-gazing, singing together, praying together, holding hands.
  • Accelerometers can measure biorhythms. Silicon accelerometers are everywhere, even in smartphones (like the Sensie platform I helped design), small, fast, and cheap. While they are still far too slow to detect the carrier wave directly, by sheer dint of bandwidth they could still measure emotional connection via cross-correlation, or individual synchrony by algorithmic measures like symmetry and 3-D power spectrum.
  • Energy is information. What sensitive people colloquially call “energy”—the various internal sensations including tingling, opening, connection, electricity, “chi,” and heat—in biophysics corresponds to vibratory information flow. Vibrations flow along meridians and concentrate in chakras. Those stripey sensations arise in the myofascial conduits tracing the spine and limbs, then are simplified into sensation by the brain’s often-mistaken motor data map (or mental whiteboard).  That virtual map tries valiantly to know exactly which conduit runs where, even without good data.
  • Discomfort is data.  A brain can learn that map correctly (from healthy experience), or incorrectly (from trauma, constraints, overtraining, or lack of experience). A bad map has defects like wrinkles, kinks, or knots. Defects lead to inconsistencies, which create zones in the body the brain mis-locates, can’t control, can’t make sense of, or can’t even feel. A brain doesn’t like operating in such zones and wants to avoid them. But dodging discomfort worsens the problem by avoiding exactly the data the brain needs to fix its map. The good news is that “good pain” (intense neuromechanical discomfort short of tissue damage) delivers clean fresh data and improved motor function in direct proportion to felt sharpness and intensity. Every pop, click, opening, release, or even spontaneous cramp results from removing a map-wrinkle, acting and feeling like snapping back to grid. Each shift instantly increases motor operating space, often feeling weird or wobbly while getting used to it.
  • Ultrasonic grounding = ultragrounding  The weirdest new trick for recalibrating the motor map consists of pressing heavy hard things against central bones, like draping one’s back across iron weights. Pinning down painful myofascial “trigger points” against a heavy inert object provides the brain a guaranteed “zero vibration” reference signal.  The pain might even feel sweet.  Beyond “foam rolling,” imagine “iron rolling.” Deliberate discomfort, pain on purpose.

In summary, multiscale vibrations describe virtually everything in a body, in particular how nanovibrations help it sense and move.  The better we know our bodies’ operating principles, the better we can fix and tune them up.

All that in about 2600 words.  Is that simple enough to defy logic?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.