Marl Twain and the Catching Reflex

Somewhere in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain there is a famous episode where Huck, a boy, masquerades as a girl. Wanting somewhere to stay, he is taken in by a Mrs Loftus, but after a while as they talk she is not taken in by him! To confirm her suspicions  about his gender she throws a ball into his lap and he instantly – too quickly for conscious thought – reacts by closing his legs.

A girl (Mark Twain reasons) would have had a different reaction: she would have spread her legs and caught the ball in her skirt. In the book Huck’s cover was blown by this shrewd test.

When I first read this, many years ago now, I was deeply impressed by Twain’s insight, and it remains a very compelling narrative. It shows how great Twain’s powers of observation, intuition and storytelling were. As a child I just thought : “Wow, that’s right” and I still think it’s very clever.

But is it true? The equation girls=skirts and boys=pants might have been substantially accurate in 19c America but even in that context the whole thing is questionable. Nowadays dress is not so rigid, and culturally and historically gender divisions have been very fluid. Even in times and places where girls were in skirts and boys pants, was Twain’s belief actually correct?

I don’t think there has every been any research, but I guess we could do some together. The next time something unexpectedly falls into your lap, post a comment to contribute to the experiment – did you catch, or try to catch it, and if so how?

Why did I write this? Walking back from my local tonight I had a lollipop in my mouth (bad for the teeth I know) and my hands were free. By accident I let the lollipop fall. Without thinking I caught it on the way down, bringing my hands together to clasp it accurately at roughly the level of my navel.

I was pleased I have still have such good reactions, but what interested me was that I had caught the lollipop in the safety net of my hands. I didn’t try to bring by legs together, or to spread them apart. Either would have caused me to fall over. Instead I cradled that lollipop in my (now sticky) hands!

Now isn’t that surprising , when you think of it? We have an unconscious reflex that can catch things we drop, on their way down. It knows if we are sitting or standing, and whether to use arms or legs, and it is remarkably good at estimating the acceleration due to gravity and predicting how to head a lollipop off at the navel, or a ball off at knee level. We can see into the immediate future remarkably well.

But if we are sitting, does it really act differently depending on whether we were brought up in skirts or trousers? Was Mark Twain just spinning a yarn? I’d love to know.

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About partialinsight

One evening I had a stroke. Half my sight vanished overnight. Adapting made me grasp how amazing the visual system and brain are. It also taught me to understand disability completely differently and I'm grateful for the lesson.
This entry was posted in 101 experiments in seeing, The brain and visual perception and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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