The Flinch Mechanism

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The Flinch Mechanism

Sarah Placke

When an object is thrown at a person either knowing or unknowing, it is human nature to flinch in order to protect the body. But does the reaction inside our brain change when we are ready and waiting for a ball to be thrown at us? Is our mind still thinking of protection, or is it just catching a ball? I wanted to see if there was a difference in the way that people's bodies reacted, and how the flinch mechanism changed and digressed in a controlled setting. Through my research and experimentation, I have discovered that when people know a ball will be thrown at them but do not know when, they are more anxious and spasmodic in their bodily flinching movement. Their hand movements are jerky in anticipation of the coming throw. Oppositely, when a ball is thrown at a person unexpectedly, their flinch reaction is one of surprise and large movement in protection. This is because the body is not expecting or ready to make the catch. The hands move to the face and the head turns away to protect itself with eyes closed. Moreover, through my research I have deduced that the body is tacitly on guard to protect itself all the time. Therefore, in any sort of sport such as baseball, the movements are ones of protection. Even though we are consciously telling ourselves that we must catch the ball, our brain is tacitly telling the body to protect itself, especially in the chest and eye regions because they are two of the most vulnerable areas on the body. The eye, core, and genital areas of the human body are the most crucial parts because humans cannot protect themselves without them. The eyes control the use of sight, the core possesses the vital organs, and the genitals control reproduction. All of these things are key to human survival and we would die without them. The act of flinching as protection is the human way of guaranteeing self-safety.

I started out gathering my data through the study of a large group of people. I measured their reaction to a ball being thrown at them without their knowing and then with their knowing. I would begin my experiment by informing the subject of tacit knowledge and my English class without giving any information away about the experiment. While retaining eye contact, I would pretend to throw a koosh ball at the subject. Throughout the ten people I studied, the main emotion expressed through their flinching was one of surprise. All subjects closed their eyes and turned their heads away while bringing up their hands to protect their face and chest. Some even yelped in surprise. I did not encounter one person who did not close their eyes and turn their head away. This flinching movement was clearly one of protection. After the subject recovered from their shock, I informed them that I was collecting data on flinching as tacit knowledge. I then told my subjects that I wanted them to be ready to catch the koosh that I was going to throw without telling them when I was going to throw it. I would let a few seconds pass with no movement to study the subject's prepared stance, noting that the positioning of the body was one of readiness and anticipation. The hands outstretched are anticipating the throw of the koosh. But the person is clearly nervous. They know they are ready to catch the koosh, yet are constantly prematurely flinching with their hands when no koosh has been thrown. The brain is telling the body that it is ready to catch the koosh, but because there is no knowing of when the koosh will be thrown, the brain is sending out protective signals which causes premature flinching. In other words, the brain is over anticipating the unknown arrival of the koosh ball.

Though I felt that I had a substantial amount of data in the first round of experimentation, I felt that my results were not bringing me any closer to answering any of the questions I sought out to answer. I wanted to study the behavior of the flinch in different circumstances and if different factors abbreviated or enhanced the size of the flinch. I also wanted to see if the maintaining of eye contact between the subjects had any effect on their flinch. For my second round of data, I followed this formula:

1. Throw koosh while maintaining eye contact but give no warning of throw
2. Throw koosh while maintaining eye contact and tell subject to be ready (no time measurement)
3. Throw koosh while maintaining eye contact and tell subject to be ready and count out loud to five then throw
4. Throw koosh while maintaining eye contact but throw to the left of the person
5. Look at person's stomach but pretend to throw at face
6. Look at person's face but pretend to throw at stomach
7. Tell subject to close eyes and anticipate throw

I would repeat these steps three times in order to see if there were any trends or change in the flinch mechanism. By performing this more detailed experiment on a smaller group of people, I feel like I could better understand each person's own personal flinch mechanism. Just like fingerprints, every mechanism is different. Every person has their own personal traits that are reflected through their natural reaction to surprise and expectation. For example, person A (I omit the names of the subjects in order to eliminate any notions or thoughts of each subject. It made it a lot easier to analyze the experiment this way) had very exaggerated physical reactions throughout all the steps, which suggests that her sense of body awareness and protection are heightened. Person C seemed to have the opposite reaction than person A. Her demeanor was much more relaxed, and only a slight jerk of the head and flinching of the eyes. (An interesting side note is that person C is a basketball player, which I think might have an impact on how her flinching mechanism has been molded and changed in terms of experience with hand-eye coordination and ball control.) I also think that the subject's flinching mechanism reflects their personality as well. Every action can be described in terms of personality, because it is our physical quirks and habits that construct us as we are physically.

I have also deduced that the flinching mechanism also works as a metaphor for how people's physical presence is manifested in the physical world; i.e. how comfortable we feel in our surroundings. For example, if a person stays in a house which they are not familiar with, all the creeks and noises within it are going to alarm her much more than it would in a place that she is used to. Thus, how our bodies fit into the physical world is a reflection of how comfortable we feel in the world. More specifically, someone who is unsure of who she are or has low self-esteem is someone who would have a higher and more spasmodic flinch mechanism. This is because the person is not comfortable with herself, and therefore she is tacitly going to be more on guard and protective of herself. Likewise, a person who is more sure of herself and confident is going to have a more relaxed and fluid flinch mechanism. Her mind is still tacitly telling her body to protect itself, yet because she is more comfortable in her surroundings, the mechanism is more muted.

Furthermore, I would continue my research more in depth and I would like to study the differences between men's and women's flinch mechanism, and if there really is a difference. I think that this is information worth studying because there the chemical and hormonal makeup between men and women are different, so therefore would that make their flinch mechanisms different? My hypothesis would be that there is a difference because of the different genetic and hormonal makeup.

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