It’s a standard feature of old Hollywood westerns. A shootout between a good guy and a bad guy. The bad guy reaches for his gun first. And he loses. But why? It certainly makes a good story, but now there’s some science to back it up – kind of. The World’s Alex Gallafent reports.
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MARCO WERMAN: It’s a standard feature of old Hollywood westerns. A shootout between the good guy and the bad guy. The bad guy reaches for his gun first, but he loses. You know, you can’t let the good guy die. But actually, there is some science to back that scenario up, kind of. We’ll let The World’s Alex Gallafent explain.
ALEX GALLAFENT: One of the first scientists to be intrigued by the shootout scenario also happened to be one of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century, the Danish quantum physicist, Niels Bohr. His idea was that when we deliberately set out to make a movement, that movement is slower than when we react to someone else moving. To be clear, this isn’t about reaction times, but about the speed at which the subsequent movement is executed. Bohr, a man more used to intellectual battles with the likes of Einstein, tested his theory with the help of some colleagues. They bought a pair of cap guns from a Copenhagen toy store and staged a series of mock gunfights. Physicist and author Graham Farmelo says Bohr always drew second.
GRAHAM FARMELO: And they found that that Bohr was right, that if they tried to shoot first he would always beat them. They should have been doing quantum physics, but in fact they were more interested in testing out Bohr’s theory of cowboy movies.
GALLAFENT: Now that kind of anecdotal evidence has itself been put to the test. British psychologist Andrew Welchman runs virtual shootouts at the University of Birmingham. Two researchers face each other across a bare lab bench. Their fingers hover above electronic pressure pads.
ANDREW WELCHMAN: We’re trying to get people to make the same movement under situations where they’ve decided to make that movement or they’ve decided to react to their opponent. And this task of pressing 3 buttons is just a simplified version of a complex movement sequence that we can study in quite a controlled way in the lab.
GALLAFENT: Welchman says his team found that people were about 20 milliseconds faster in their movements when they were reacting than when they were initiating. Twenty milliseconds isn’t very long, and Welchman agrees that it probably isn’t long enough to help the good guy come out on top in a shootout. In fact, he estimates that the brain takes about 200 milliseconds simply to process the reaction. But still, Welchman says his results shine some light on the different pathways the brain uses to generate movement, whether it’s reactive or intentional. That, he says, speaking later by phone, might be useful for medical research.
WELCHMAN: You know, this is real speculation. It’s not something we’ve tested, but we know in patients with Parkinson’s disease that they can be more impaired when they make intentional movements. So, you know, it would be interesting to see whether this test that we’ve developed shows a deficit in movements at a kind of early point in people that go on to develop Parkinson’s.
GALLAFENT: Welchman adds that the work could eventually help the rehabilitation of people with brain injuries, too. So far, Andrew Welchman and his team have entered into virtual gunfights with other people and with computers. The results are the same. But he says he hasn’t yet tried other stimuli to initiate shootouts like sound.
WELCHMAN: That’s going to be interesting to hear that one come off. Bang, bang.
GALLAFENT: This round goes to the bad guy. For The World, I’m Alex Gallafent.
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