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On an otherwise uneventful day back in Engineering school, I was attending Physics class sometime mid-morning. Our professor was out sick that day, so a substitute teacher took over the day's lesson. We were reviewing some homework about conservation of momentum.


  • two boats float on a frictionless lake
  • massboat1 = 500 kg
  • massboat2 = 340 kg
  • massbox = 91 kg
  • Vboat1 = +3 m/s
  • Vboat2 = -5 m/s
  • Vbox = +4 m/s

A worker on boat 1 throws a box to boat 2 as they pass each other. What are Vboat1 and Vboat2 after the box lands in boat 2?

I sat near the top of a highly angled classroom, nicknamed "The Fishbowl." While the steps leading up to each row of seats were annoying, nobody could complain about a blocked view. I gazed downwards at our professor, who taught one of my other classes. He understood this lesson well, and was answering questions clearly.

Suddenly, my head felt like it was spiraling out of control and I was dizzy. If I had been standing, I would have needed to grab on to something to prevent falling over. Even more disturbing, I lost the ability to comprehend what our professor was writing, and I couldn't read my own notes. I couldn't write any more notes either.

How alarming and inconvenient! The dizziness passed within seconds, but my ability to comprehend symbols escaped me. The notes on my desk and everything the professor was writing didn't mean anything. it was like viewing Chinese characters or hieroglyphics. His spoken words made sense, but all of the symbols lost their meaning. Nothing looked different, and I could still see everything clearly. I struggled to mimic the shapes our prof drew on the chalkboard to continue with lesson, realizing how much I relied on symbols for shorthand. When I lost the concept that "thing with four sides represents a box," I focused instead on the lines and tried to copy them exactly as they appeared on the board.

Imagine a stick figure - your standard circle with a central line representing the torso and abdomen, with extra lines extending on the sides as arms and legs. It's the simplest way to represent the human body. People around the world, regardless of language or culture would probably be able to understand that it represents a human. However, in this condition I would have only seen the physical illustration - the circle and lines.

You could have shown me a smiley face, and I would only have seen the outer circle and dots. In this unusual state, I would have been unable to detect any connection between the imprints on paper and the idea that it might represent a human form. In those troubling moments, I would have been able to copy the symbol as an illustration, but only as a copier or scanner would.

Fortunately, my abilities restored themselves within two minutes, and I continued on. I never mentioned this to classmates, since it passed so quickly. It had never happened before, has never happened since. This was the middle of week, so I hadn't touched alcohol. I'd only had my normal cup of coffee, and was well rested, at least for a college student. I wasn't recovering from or entering into illness. I don't have allergies. There were no tests or major challenges approaching to preoccupy me. I hadn't fallen down and hit my head. Basically, this was entirely unexpected.

While far from pleasant, it gave me a picture of what aphasia , agraphia or alexia are like, or the challenges children face when first learning written language. The connection between drawn shapes and meaning completely disappeared, I was only seeing the physical forms illustrated without any extra meaning. If I'd been prepared for what would happen, this state might be great for making more realistic drawings. No stick figures would show up on my doodle pad. But definitely not for physics, I need my symbols.