The “Law of Irradiation” on Trial

Reactions to Part III of The Science and Bullshit of Lifting made me realize that there is more to ‘irradiation’ than I initially thought. (About 2.800 words, estimated reading time 12-15 min.)

The ‘irradiation law’ business is a clusterfuck a tangled web combining lazy writing and outright bullshit. But it’s also worth looking at in details because there’s enough empirical evidence to support something that is close enough to irradiation to keep the bullshit flying.

Evidence for a case against “Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation” is not evidence against the notion of irradiation itself. Nor is it evidence against anything that recommends exploiting irradiation either (like ‘hardstyle’ kettlebell lifting). It merely pulls the rug from under the feet of those who evoke it as their scientific foundation.

Still, a substitute to the mythical “Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation” would vindicate the concept. The substitute could be a law or some other theoretical construct, but there are some conditions that must be met for the substituting construct to do the job.

Now, I intend to write an academic paper about just that so I’m not going to spoil the surprise. But for that, I need to do my homework and I can make you privy to the process one or two pieces of evidence at a time. If anything, it will make a nice series of short posts where I’ll be able to look at the evidence in detail and with the appropriate attention while keeping post length and philosophical technicalities under control.

And so, for today, I’ll stick to Evidence #1 (Pavel’s quote) and my expert opinion about it. Now, I’m not a neurologist, but I have a good claim at being an expert at something else, which is highly relevant here, namely the Sherlock Holmes sense of memory. But before that, a caveat.

This is not a prosecution

Although Exhibit #1 is clearly incriminating, this is not a prosecution. The bullshit-busting case against StrongFirst® lazy writers is only tangent to my purpose here, which is the search for a theoretical substitute for irradiation. Again, if I find one, it might actually vindicate Tsatsouline (but not the lazy writer from StrongFirst®, I’ll come to that in due time).

And so, I’ll be more inspired by the French ‘inquisitorial’ justice system than by the U.S. ‘prosecutorial’ justice system. In the former, the investigation preliminary to a trial is carried by a specially appointed judge called juge d’instruction (instruction would translate ‘inquest’ in that context) who gathers evidence and expert opinion both à charge (whatever could incriminate the defendant) and à décharge (whatever could exonerate the defendant).

Given my purpose, I clearly have to do both. Then again, today is à charge only, although there will be some mitigating circumstances.

Instruction #1: Power to the People

The natural starting point for my investigation is the original context: Pavel Tsatsouline’s summary of the (alleged) ‘law’ and the context in which it appears. So I’ll begin with the quote and some context.

Then I’ll state my expert opinion, in two parts:

  • Part I is about vetting sources. I’m an expert at that by simple virtue of being an academic with a Ph.D., which is equivalent to a black belt in academic writing (that is: the last of the beginner’s ranks).
  • Part II is about memory as a source. I’m an expert at that by virtue of my post-doctoral original research which happens to be the cutting edge in the field (if I may say so myself).

So, let’s get shit done.

The “Law of Irradiation”

Below is the quote from the book as reproduced on the StrongFirst® forum, followed by a screenshot of the full page from the book for context. It’s copyrighted material, but since this post is essentially the draft for an academic paper, it qualifies for “fair use”.

Russian have never been adverse to apply solid foreign research to their training. Take the Sherrington Laws postulated by one of your countrymen named–surprise!–Sherrington decades ago. One of these ‘lieuez’, as Chief Inspector Clouseau would say, is the Law of Irradiation. It states that a muscle working hard recruits the neighborhood muscles, and if they are already a part of the action, it amplifies their strength! Not by cheating, as some complement their barbell curls with a backswing, but by ‘cheering’. The neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle reaches other muscles and ‘turn them on’ as electric current starts on a motor.

Pavel Tsatsouline, Power to the People (p. 34)

The expert’s opinion

Let’s begin with the essential: I can definitely tell you that Clouseau would never have said ‘Lieuz’. He would have said ‘Lwhaz’ (with “wha” as in what). I have no idea what inspector Clouseau does in there, tho, so I’ll leave it at that.

Now for my expert opinion: the Power to the People passage is an example of lazy writing and mental confusion. As I said, the ‘lazy writing’ part is not difficult to establish and does not require much expert knowledge. To be honest, my expert opinion on this part is a bit of an overkill. Still, it lends support to the second part, about ‘mental confusion’ side of it because it paves the way to understand the particular type of mental confusion I am expert in.

Part I: Lazy writing

Power to the People was written for a U.S. readership and the word “countrymen” therefore implies that Sherrington was a U.S. citizen. Only he wasn’t.

Charles Scott Sherrington was a British scientist through and through. From 1895 on he taught at the University of Liverpool. His 1906 groundbreaking book The Integrative Action of the Nervous System was published in London and helped him obtain a professorship in Oxford in 1913. Sherrington did tour the U.S. in 1904 where he delivered a well-received series of lectures in Yale (the Stillman Lectures) that form the material collected, expanded, and published in 1906 in book form.

So, if we are in a charitable mood, we may explain away the ‘countryman’ remark as a possibly justified confusion.

Like the Spartans would say: “If”.

The first rule of scholarship is to source the fuck out what you write. It extends from professional scholarship (academia) to recreational scholarship (blogging, popular science, etc.), be it for-profit or not-for-profit.

Insufficiently sourced academic writing is a crime and usually carries its own punishment (dismissal by peers). Poorly sourced popsci is barely a misdemeanor and usually goes unnoticed. Plus, it goes with the territory since in popsci the reference section is a courtesy, not an obligation, because popsci is by definition derivative, not original, and it is implicit that the claims come from somewhere.

And that’s why I’m calling Tsatsouline on lazy writing rather than on bullshit. Relying on one’s memory is lazy because memory is not a reliable source of information in the absence of some proactive measures (see below). A 5-min. search on Google dispelled the ‘Sherrington Law of Irradiation’ and, in 2001, one hour worth of time spent by a research assistant would have done the same. Or a phone call to a knowledgeable friend. Whatever. More important is the issue with memory, which brings us to Part II.

Part II: Mental Confusion

Our brain does not store information in neat little boxes. It distributes it across a network of neurons in a way that creates a host of possible associations. Below is a description of this storage, from a paper I co-authored with Justine Jacot titled “The brain attics: the strategic role of memory in single and multi-agent inquiry” (Synthese, 2018, that substantiates my claim of expertise about the topic at hand.

2.2 Holmes on the brain-attic. Holmes’ view of memory is revealed in A Study in Scarlet. Having casually mentioned that the Earth revolves around the Sun, Watson is first surprised to find out that Holmes ignored that fact, and then baffled when the consulting detective proclaims that he will do his best to forget everything about it. Holmes then offers the following clarification:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” (A Study in Scarlet, 2)

Holmes ‘brain-attic memory’ (BAM for short) builds on the method of loci of Greek and Roman rhetoric, expounded for instance in Cicero’s De Oratore. The method relies on what is often referred to as ‘mind palaces’ in popular expositions (for instance Yates 1966), that is, visualizations of spatial structures in which items to be committed to memory are assigned specific loci [spatial position] according to a user-defined classification scheme. Holmes implicitly assumes a one-one correspondence between loci and actual locations in the brain, and draws the consequence that the size of the latter being bounded, some items must be ‘committed out’ of memory—hence his ignorance of the layout of the solar system [4].

The BAM conception blends considerations about the functional role of memory (storage) and its physical substrate (the brain). Contemporary cognitive neuroscience depicts a more subtle relation between the functional organization of memory, and its material substrate. Memories are encoded in the brain by neurons sensitive to microfeatures that can receive a value within a range; are maximally activated in response to a particular value within that range; and respond to other values with an intensity that decreases with the distance from their preferred value (see Churchland and Sejnowski 1992). For instance, the red diamond of a card suit, depicted in a particular shade of red and with two 45° angles, activates maximally neurons that respond to that shade and that angle, less-than-maximally neurons that respond to slightly darker or lighter shades of red, and to angles of 44° and 46°, and not at all neurons that respond to shades of blue, or to 180° angles. Subsequently, memories are distributed, that is, encoded as bundles of microfeatures (Hebb 1949; Hinton et al. 1986). This neural architecture is an elegant solution to the problem of limited material space of the brain-attic since an individual neuron can contribute to encoding a variety of items. For instance, the same shade-of-red sensitive neurons involved in memorizing red diamonds of a given card set are also involved in memorizing its red hearts, as well as a host of other items that share the same shade of red. Furthermore, the brain is organized so that similar items are distributed across overlapping regions, which facilitates associative recall. By analogy with computer memory types, this feature is often referred to as ‘content addressability’. Content-addressable memory (CAM) takes data as input, and returns addresses where similar data is stored, while random access memory (RAM) takes addresses as input and returns the data stored at those addresses (Hebb 1949; Marr 1969). Grouping similar data improves the performance of CAM, but not that of RAM.

Holmes’ BAM reflects an outdated view of the material substrate of memory. At the same time, it is clearly a sort of CAM, and displays a cogent outlook on the functional organization of memory. A BAM-CAM distributed architecture creates a host of potential associations, contingent on one’s past experience. For instance, someone who has first encountered a given shade of red through the red diamonds of a particular card set would associate that shade with a particular rhombus shape. Depending on the context, these associations may just as well draw their attention to features of the environment relevant to their current task or divert it towards irrelevant ones. One can cultivate associations, as recommended by the method of loci or Holmes’ method. Then, particular visualizations create patterns of co-activation in a BAM-CAM. The relation between the functional-level description (the locus an individual memory is kept in, and its relations with other loci and memories) and a material-level description (the patterns of co-activation of cliques of neurons) is more subtle than the one-one correspondence suggested by Holmes’ BAM description. But Holmes’ recommendation to keep “a large assortment [of tools in] perfect order” has nonetheless a possible description at both levels.

Because of the way information is stored in the brain, every instance of remembering is also an instance of re-memorizing: the memory that is re-called is associated with elements of the contexts it is recalled in, and a new memory is thus re-encoded with those new associations. The architecture of memory does the rest and the re-encoding amounts to a re-distribution.

In layman’s terms: every time you remember something, you’re changing your memory. Hence Sherlock Holmes’ view of memory: that memory is a ‘brain attic’ that you should keep in order so that you stay in control with your associations. Which brings me to Pavel’s Tsatsouline’s mental confusion.

About 20 years after the Stillman lectures, Sherrington and Liddell began torturing hundreds of cats: they cut their spinal nerves, decerebrated them, etc., in order to isolate the actions of motor neurons. In the process, they discovered that soon after the quadriceps muscle of a decerebrated cat was stretched, there was an increase of force in that muscle, that stopped when the muscle returned to its elongated state. Liddell and Sherrington had just discovered the myotatic reflex, that we call nowadays the ‘stretch reflex’.

Given that the cat was decerebrated, the reflex was not controlled by the central nervous system. So, it is a case of “neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle” that “turn [muscles] on’ as electric current starts on a motor”, but the Liddell-Sherrington reflex ‘turns on’ the muscle it originates from, not neighboring muscles.

In the same study, Liddell and Sherrington described the inhibition of a flexor muscle (the posterior biceps of our decerebrated cat) during the activity of the extensor muscle (the quadriceps) providing for the first time evidence that the activity of flexors and extensors is coordinated, which would become known later as Sherrington’s Second Law.

I stated in my last post that Sherrington’s Second Law earned him a Nobel Prize in 1932. That was incorrect: the more general discovery of the motor unit did. Then again, Sherrington’s Second Law is related to motor units, while his first law isn’t (this explains my confusion and doubles as an illustration of the fickleness of memory). Also, Sherrington’s Second Law is finally a case of what we are after, namely “neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle [that] reaches other muscles” in the neighborhood.

But the neural impulses of Sherrington’s Second Law do not ‘cheer’ the neighbors: they yell at them to shut the fuck up and mind their own business.

Conclusion (for today)

Tsatsouline’s Power to the People is most likely the origin of the myth of Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation and a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of trusting one’s memory.

My expert opinion would probably not hold up in court: it’s an explanatory hypothesis that cannot be properly tested. I did not say ‘falsify’ and if you wonder why check that post. Actually, because of how the memory works, it would still be plausible if Pavel Tsatsouline stood before us and told us that things did not go down that way. So not being falsifiable is a feature, not a bug (once again).

Outdated falsificationism notwithstanding, we can find mitigating circumstances to Pavel Tsatsouline’s conflation of irradiation with Sherrington’s Second Law. Then again, the ‘countryman’ remark shows that, at least in 2001, Tsatsouline was not too cautious with his writing.

Mitigating circumstances are not to be found in the case of the StongFirst® post of 2017. Where Tsatsouline’s 2001 book is lazy writing, Craig Marker’s post probably qualifies as outright bullshitting (in Harry Frankfurt’s now-familiar sense). I’ll investigate it in the next episode of “The Law of Irradiation” if there ever is one.

Before I check out, here’s yet another cautionary tale about the fickleness of memory.

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