Sunday, February 10, 2013

Test Patterns of the Mind

When I was a child growing up, our television displayed a test pattern when there was no programming. The area where I lived, on the frontier of North America, was quite possibly one of the last areas in Canada and the USA to get TV reception. It came to the north late in 1962 or early 1963, and by the summer of 1963, our family had a small black and white box with rabbit ears in the corner of our living room. There was only one channel, a local station that broadcast CBC along with some local programming, and the reception was inconsistent and the image was fuzzy. On weekdays, the programming didn't start until twelve noon when the news came on, and I believe that it went off the air at midnight (although I am not entirely certain, as I was not allowed to stay up that late). By the time I was old enough to babysit, the late show came on after the eleven o'clock evening news, and programming ended around 2 a.m. and resumed at 6 a.m.

If you turned on the TV during a time that there was no scheduled programming, you would see the TV test pattern. In the early years, the test pattern that I recall was a modified version (I think) of the famous Indian head test card. When the programming was about to start or just after it ended, a tone marked the transition from or to the test pattern. In the early years, aside from the transition tone, the test pattern was silent but in later years they played insipid music (the forerunner of grocery store music) during test pattern hours. When colour TV came in a few years later, CBC's test pattern image changed.

Anyways, the purpose of this post is not really to talk about television, but rather to use the analogy of a test pattern for what the mind does while at rest. What got me thinking about this was a conversation that I had with Rob a couple of weeks ago. I commented to him about the kind of music that I heard in my head. Very often, when I am not consciously thinking about something but just letting my mind wander (especially while walking, driving, or working physically) I have a tune running through my head. Sometimes it is something that I have recently heard on the radio, or it may be a song that comes into my mind suggested by a word or a phrase. Sometimes it is original music that I invent, and in those cases, if I am alone I often find myself humming, whistling, or singing, and beating out a rhythm as I go along.

Rob responded that he doesn't hear music in his head. This astonished me because I had always just assumed that everyone hears music in their heads. Rob is a person who loves to listen to music. He has a huge music collection, and is much more knowledgeable about music than I. But I have tunes running through my mind and he does not.

That made me wonder about the degree to which people's mental test patterns differ. When I talk about test patterns of the mind, I mean those images or sounds that the mind sees and hears while awake but in neutral, not really focused on anything in particular. I thought I might describe some of my visual test patterns.

Often when my eyes are closed, my mind is drifting, and I am just about to drift off to sleep, I see colours. I will see, for example, bright purple, or green, or blue, and it will start in the middle of my visual field and spread out into an abstract shape. Then another colour will start in the middle and spread out, and so on. Or sometimes the colour shapes will scroll from the top to the bottom. When I say that the colours are bright, I mean they are like the colours of the spectrum, bright and pure.

Another visual test pattern that I sometimes have are rounded blob shapes that appear, and spread, and morph together. They are a little like droplets of oil floating on water that come together into bigger rounded shapes, and break apart again into small blob shapes. Finally, sometimes, quite rarely, I see complex multicoloured abstract patterns, and these again are always in motion, smoothly changing form. I am curious; do other people see patterns like these behind their eyes?

When I am awake but at rest, with my eyes open staring at nothing, my mind invents humans or anthropomorphized animals out of the shadows, the rug pattern, or the creases of the comforter. I will see a knight with a curly beard riding an elongated horse, or a dragon with hunched shoulders, or a woman with bouffant hair turning to look behind her. I know that I have done this since I was very young. My mind turns the Rorschach ink blots supplied by the environment into humans or animals. Am I fanciful, or do others have their own typical test patterns too?

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