In the last essay, I discussed the importance of rich vibrant life experiences for validating a meaningful life. At this point, I want to break down the composition of a rich life experience from an unusual perspective, in order to more fully comprehend what is missing today. To do this, I wish to present a classification of stimuli.
Discrete stimuli are stimuli with defined borders, a defined beginning and a defined end. They are perceptually determinate stimuli. Examples are a staccato sound like a drum beat, a dot, a line from 0 to 1 on a graph, and a puff of air. Well-defined figures are bordered by and infused with discrete stimuli in our fields of experience. Things like a chair, a table, a hammer, a saw.
Continual stimuli are stimuli with poorly-defined blurry borders, poorly-defined blurry beginnings and poorly-defined blurry ends. Examples are a legato sound like a note on an organ, a wave on the ocean, the smell of chicken cooking on a grill or of perfume on a woman. They are perceptually indeterminate stimuli. Grounded phenomena like natural surfaces - fields, forests, and lakes - are infused with continual stimuli.
Finally, there are the continuous stimuli, which correspond to the stimuli that come from a vacuum, the spaces in between different figure and ground phenomena. The two major stimuli that come to mind are the pitch blackness where there is no light and the slight hum that occurs when there is total silence.
Now there are truly infinities of different discrete and continual stimuli in the world. However, modern mathematics teaches us that there are different kinds of infinities. One kind of infinity is all the natural numbers: 1,2,3,4,5, etc. Another kind of infinity is all the points on a line. It can be demonstrated that the number of points on a line is actually a larger infinity than the number of natural numbers. So if you have a line that goes from 0 up to 1 inch, there are more points on that short line, than the number of natural numbers. And although a defined line or a single point can be considered a discrete stimulus, the endless flow of non-demarcated points that blur together within that line is like the flow of waves, a flow of continual stimuli. And just as there are different kinds of infinity to represent different sets of numbers, there are different kinds of infinity to represent different groupings of stimuli. And there is a greater infinity of continual stimuli in our fields of experience than there is of discrete stimuli.
Put another way, there is a greater infinity of indeterminate stimuli in our fields of experience than determinate stimuli. The very way that this idea is set up makes it very difficult to verify through a determinate scientific experiment or observation. I can only arrive at this idea through analogy, deduction and inference. In today’s world, we increasingly feel that all meaningful phenomena in our living environment are determinate and, therefore, can be controlled and examined through determinate science. An awful lot of reality gets eliminated as a result of this assumption.
At any rate, when we increasingly spend our time focusing on the discrete points of pixels on a computer screen or on the discrete points of data on different computer screens, we are dwelling in diminished experiential infinities of stimuli in comparison to the rich continual stimuli available in primary experience. On one level, what makes a rich vibrant life experience is a rich flow of continual stimuli, a rich flow of immediate sensory stimuli.
Reading a book is an interesting hybrid experience. It represents a transitional experience between the experiences from traditional organic living environments and those from modern technological living environments. On the one hand, one is experiencing the determinate forms of letters and words. On the other hand, the continual stimulation of imagination is stimulated by stories, and the continual stimuli of the free association of ideas is stimulated by essays. The flow of ideation is much more activated by a book than by a movie or a television program, where so much more is given for one’s field of experience. The more pure discrete stimuli of facts predominate in text books and manuals and are much more similar to the formats of short factual presentations that appear to predominate on the Internet.
Anyway, to the extent that we get rid of more organic environments and build modern technological living environments, we get rid of the templates that make possible flowing continual stimuli interactions with our living environment and flowing continual stimuli interactions with other people.
This analogy can also be extended to the mental processes within our brains. We use discrete cognitive thought processes to simplify our mental experiences by organizing the flow of continual sensations we absorb from our field of experience. Without these discrete cognitive thought processes, our highly developed sensory nervous system would be overwhelmed by the vast number of unfiltered sensations it receives. And it is our discrete cognitive thought processes that have continued to transform the world by sensorily simplifying iit into the cognitive structures of what has finally become modern technological civilization. But in the transformation of the natural world into modern technological living environments, the field of sensory experience has been simplified into a diminished infinity of cognitively controlled and developed sensory stimuli. Cognition, which was developed by humans to protect them through control and manipulation of the natural sensory environment, has actually supplanted the natural sensory environment and populated the fields of experience with a diminished infinity of cognitively controlled and developed stimuli, that lead to diminished opportunities for rich vibrant life experiences.
I know that most people today are somewhat accepting of the worlds of experience created by the processes of industrial and consumer machines and the activities created on the other sides of the screens of their televisions and computers. And that is because they have learned to believe in the fields of experience in which they have grown up as the primary relevant fields of experience for modern human beings. People have adjusted psychologically to these modern technological fields of experience, even if their nervous systems haven’t totally evolved to feel comfortable in them. Even with psychological acceptance of modern technological worlds, there is still sensory distortion with which human nervous systems have to deal.
And this is because we are primates and not robots, and we have difficulties living on such an intense diet of determinate discrete stimuli. Robots don’t need to concern themselves with rich vibrant organic experiences to validate their existence. As a matter of fact, robots don’ have the capacity for rich vibrant organic experiences. Robots are built to respond to determinate discrete stimuli.
We humans have adapted imperfectly to deal with and respond to all the cognitive information we receive and all the sensory stimuli of static that impinge upon us from our sensory world. And as we do so, we become less capable of properly absorbing the rich infinities of organic continual sensory stimuli we need to feel fully alive and that exist in our fields of experience less and less. This is the case, even though humans still have the same basic strong needs for organic continual sensory stimuli. We become less capable of properly absorbing what we need. So an excessive cognitive development, as a result particularly of intense interactions with computers, creates conflicts between the differing requirements of our cognitve nature and our sensory nature. Perhaps this conflict will resolve in the direction of humans becoming like cyborgs or androids as we take on more and more mechanical parts and experience changes in our sense of self and the configuration of our sensory receptors. At such a time in the future, perhaps the need for rich vibrant organic experience will significantly diminish or will dissolve altogether. But then we will no longer be truly human.
c 2011 Laurence Mesirow