Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Foundation of Rich Vibrant Life Experiences

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Effects of Sensory Distortion in Modern Living Environments

Up until now, I have focused in this blog on how modern technological environments influence one very important purpose of life: the need to prepare for death through the imprints we humans leave on other humans and on other experiential surfaces around us as a kind of surrogate immortality.  By creating overly defined hard laminated surfaces on all the technological figures that fill our environment, there are few grounded surfaces left to make and preserve new imprints.

However, there is another very important purpose of life that is also affected as a result of the sensory distortion resulting from technological experiential surfaces.  This other purpose is that of feeling fully and richly alive.  People cannot simply spend their whole lives focused on preparing for death.  In order to validate their existences, they also have to feel intense experiences in the present.  Just like preparing for death, feeling richly alive is a fundamental need.  When life feels flat and boring, people feel like they aren’t really living, or that their lives are living deaths.  Sometimes, rich life experiences are turned into memories or into some kind of more permanent phenomena like a book, a building, or a baby.  An imprint is made, and then it is preserved.  But sometimes, rich life experiences occur to make imprints with the primary purpose of helping a person to feel richly alive at the moment.  Many diversions fall into this category.  Dining out at a fine restaurant, traveling to an exotic country, going to a lively fun party - in all of these experiences, the focus is on feeling richly alive rather than preparing for death. In terms of even more fundamental experiences, participating in activities in nature like hiking, fishing, swimming in a pond, climbing a mountain are all instances of making and receiving organic imprints and being stimulated to life at the moment in the process.

But when the grounded surfaces gradually start receding from our fields of experience as a result of the encroachment of modern technology and the structures it creates, many opportunities for engaging in rich experiences in the present simply disappear.  We are left with living environments with configurations of stimuli that are alternately understimulating for our primate nervous systems and overstimulating.  We create frictionless vacuum living environments like modern homes and highrise apartments with technological devices that eliminate routine chores from daily life.  Modern living environments have climate-controlled atmospheres.  They are frequently free of sensorily interesting moldings and beams that added texture and interesting contours to spaces in more traditional architecture.  And they are often set apart from the flow of life either in homes in isolated suburbs or in high-rise buildings above the swarming city.

Apart from the understimulation in such living spaces, there is the overstimulation from speedy noisy cars and motorcycles, the crush of people on the streets in overcrowded modern cities, the disjunctive clutter effect of modern buildings in cities that don’t fit together with one another, the crush of cars in bumper-to-bumper traffic on highways and the abrasive noise and dust created by modern construction machines and vehicles at building sites.

So people today become alternately understimulated and overstimulated by the configurations of phenomena in their fields of experience.  Technological change has been occurring more rapidly than the evolution of the human nervous system.  People have worked hard to create frictionless vacuum living environments that are free from the perishability  that occurs commonly in more organic natural living environments.  In the process, people have created all the different waste stimuli - noise, clutter, dust, industrial smells, crowding - that they as human beings are not built to absorb.

Without a lot of grounded surfaces to commune with, people turn to abrasive stimuli to pull themselves out of the numbness of the vacuum.  Motorcycles, loud electronic-based popular music, strobe lights, some drugs.  All are attempts to shock oneself out of numbness.  Other drugs as well as meditation and meditation music are used for an opposite purpose: to withdraw from those parts and aspects of the living environment that create sensory overload  and to put one into self-induced vacuum states.  In neither case do people have the kind of experiences where there is rich engagement with the external world and that create an intense sustained feeling of being alive.  People become down and numb from withdrawal into a vacuum, and then they become overagitated and jaded from the experience of the abrasive static stimuli previously discussed.  They bounce back and forth, feeling fully comfortable in neither experiential configuration.

One way that people try to stabilize their sensory reactions in spite of a lack of significant organic grounding is through complex electronic phenomena like movies, television and computers.  In each case, there is a highly mediated presentation of stimuli, the creation of a vacuum that surrounds a piece of life experience.  This vacuumized presentation by itself is numbing.  However, in order to stimulate people to life from beyond the vacuum, the content frequently is very intense and abrasive.  Violence and sex seem to be the most common popular themes in movies and television today.  In terms of structure of content, scenes are short, and there is a quick shift between them in order to create greater intensity.  A rapid flow of intense disjunctive images in order to give people kicks and pull them out of the vacuum enclosure of the screen.  Pockets of static surrounded by a vacuum.  The same with computers.  A rapid flow of intense disjunctive presentations of information surrounded by a vacuum.  All these are microcosms of the vacuum and static pocket larger environment that people live in within modern technological society.  But on a microcosmic level, one can balance the understimulating  vacuum and the overstimulating static pockets in such a way that one doesn’t have to bounce between them.  Nevertheless, this mediated experience does not give people experiential surfaces on which to make and preserve organic imprints.  Without the presentation of organic surfaces, the people using these machines are missing out on the truly rich life experiences that allow them to feel intensely alive, let alone leave imprints that allow them to prepare for death.

In an environment of sensory distortion, people are reduced to a third purpose separate from preparing for death or feeling fully alive.  People become focused on basic psychological survival, holding themselves together in an environment where the configurations of stimuli offer little psychological grounding, and the configurations of surfaces offer little opportunity to make and preserve new imprints.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow