Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Problem of Bullying In Modern Technological Society

            Bullying is a problem that has drawn increasing attention in recent years around the world.  It’s a problem that is considered to have negative effects not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators as well as for the innocent observers.  And it has many different manifestations.  There is name calling, general teasing, harassment, college hazing, spreading rumors, and physical violence among other forms. With modern technology, we now have cyberbullying, where people can get teased, harassed and threatened on the Internet.

            Bullying is different from old-fashioned expressions of aggression.  Many of the old forms of aggression related to defending a person’s honor (I am excluding here raiding parties and warfare for economic purposes).  With defense of honor, the victim is perceived to have done the perpetrator wrong.  In many cases, the wrong would be perceived by modern people to be imaginary as in the case of witchcraft.  But the structure of traditional aggression is to hurt the victim because the victim has hurt the perpetrator.  Basically, the perpetrator of the new aggression wants to get even.  Even in the case of a natural disaster, if a supposed perpetrator can be connected to it through witchcraft, the supposed victim of a part of the natural disaster can use the premise of witchcraft as a vehicle that permits him to express his potentially explosive emotions against the supposed perpetrator in a way that allows him to express these emotions without metaphorically blowing himself up.

            With honor defense, the flowing aggression that is activated by all the organic stimulation in a more traditional natural living environment, but remains latent until a target is found, finds an outlet for release when a supposed wrong is committed against the perpetrator of honor defense.  So, in truth, honor defense serves two purposes: the surface one of getting even, and the deeper one of finding a focused safe outlet to release the explosive emotions that build up inside many traditional people as a result of all the organic stimulation they absorb from their more natural living environments.

            Particularly in more preliterate societies, people deal with their strong flowing blendable continual emotions by turning a lot of situations where things go wrong into situations of honor defense.  Some misfortune happens, and a person is found as a scapegoat and accused of having created the harmful situation through witchcraft.  In this situation, we would call the chain of causation attributed to the supposed perpetrator a magical fabricated chain of causation.  But for preliterate people, it is a way of applying some kind of coherent explanation to a situation that they really don’t understand.  And it is also a way of releasing swirling internal aggressive emotions in a safe societally permitted way.  Honor defense is a very important mechanism for regulating emotions not only in preliterate society but in all traditional societies.  Perhaps in Western traditional societies the explanation of witchcraft wouldn’t be resorted to as much in order to explain all uncomfortable events.  Perhaps honor defense wouldn’t be resorted to as much, and more reasoned patient explanations would be developed to explain some of these events.  But honor defense would still play an important role in helping to deal with some kinds of uncertainty.  In honor defense, what is important is utilizing a target perpetrator – real or imagined – who becomes a receptacle for the aggressive emotions of the supposed victim.

            Bullying, although it is an aggressive action against a person, represents a very different situation of aggressive emotions and behavior.  Interestingly enough, in bullying, the focus is more on the process of aggression rather than the target of the aggression.  The victim has usually not wronged the perpetrator in any way.  So the perpetrator is not trying to get even with the victim.  Rather the victim of bullying is a vehicle the perpetrator uses to try to stimulate himself out of the numbness he feels as a result of living in modern technological society.  It is a way of pulling himself out of the experiential vacuum in which he is living in as a result of living a life that is too frictionless and too mediated.  And aggression is a tension-pocket action that can shock the bully out of his numbness.

            The bully picks someone who is weaker and more helpless than he is, because he is not really looking for a fight.  Rather he is looking for an object and a situation where he can safely express his repressed anger without having to worry about any meaningful retaliation.  In fraternity hazing, the bully has the additional safety of numbers.  The fraternity members actively haze a whole group of fraternity pledges, who, if they tried to respond to the hazing in a negative way, would not be offered an opportunity to become a member of the fraternity which they are so desirous to join.  But the fraternity members are as much in need of the pledges as the pledges are in need of the members.  And not simply because the members want the pledges to provide continuity for the fraternity.  Rather, apart from the fraternity parties, which can get raucous, fraternity hazing provides some of the most intense stimulating experiences that fraternity members can have during their years in the fraternity.  The pledges help to pull the members out of the latter’s own sense of weakness and helplessness as a result of their numbness.

            But in today’s world, much of what we would call bullying is done in an almost anonymous way.  Bullies can spread rumors about their victims by word of mouth or on the Internet.  Also, on the Internet, bullies can directly tease and threaten their victims.  All of these cases are what we would call mediated bullying.  One would think that this mediation would take some of the pleasure out of the encounter of bullies with their victims.  But bullies, at bottom, are people who are very numb.  And although they are using the process of bullying as a vehicle to pull themselves out of their numbness, many of them are going to be overwhelmed by the aggressive stimulation they generate inside themselves.  To such people, doing their bullying through a relatively frictionless mediated pathway like the Internet, tends to dampen the intensity of the anger stimulated inside of them.  In this way, they can absorb the positive effects without being swallowed up by their anger.  In other words, they need the intensity of the anger they generate inside themselves in order to feel alive, but they have difficulty absorbing it sometimes and that is when they find a way to weaken it by filtering it.

            But filtered or unfiltered, bullying today is a conventionalized way for many people to pull themselves out of their numbness, out of the experiential vacuum, in order to feel alive.  And we will never find a way to significantly diminish its impact, unless we acknowledge the effect of modern living environments on its prevalence today.

© 2019 Laurence Mesirow

The Ferocious Competition Among Modern Students To Reach The Top

            The pressures today to get into a good college or university in the U.S. are enormous.  In order to achieve this goal, many high school students not only work super hard to get a 4.0 grade point average (or as close as possible), but they also fill all their free time with all sorts of extracurricular activities designed to show that they are well-rounded people.  Sports activities, art and music lessons, orchestras and bands, social clubs, honor societies and after-school and summer jobs.  Competition to get into the top colleges and universities is ferocious, and many students are afraid of allowing themselves too much down time.  And the competition is based on a single line of reasoning.  A student has to get into an excellent college or university in order to get into an excellent graduate school in order to make the contacts that will allow him to get into the high-paying high-status jobs.  And anything less than succeeding in this pathway of personal advancement is considered a failure.  Schoolwork, sports, art, music, social clubs, honor societies, jobs, all have to be carried out perfectly in the minds of these students in order to stay in good standing with their schools and employers.

            And the result of all this pressure – both external and internal – is a lot of mental health issues among these young people.  Anxiety, depression, drugs, alcohol, delinquency, suicidal thoughts and suicide.  A lot of students with serious psychological issues.  It has never been quite like this before.  And the question is why now.

            Most young people in America are growing up with a level of ease and comfort unheard of in past generations.  This level of ease and comfort is derived, among other things, from the modern technological devices that make their lives more frictionless.  Everything from electric can-openers to cars.  The ease and comfort is also derived from the modern consumer technology that makes life more mediated.  Movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones, and tablets.  All this modern technology leads to greater difficulty for people to make and receive organic imprints in order to feel alive, and also to greater difficulty for people to preserve imprints in order to create a surrogate immortality and prepare for death.  Because opportunities for making and preserving imprints are scarce, young people are kept in a prolonged adolescence with more and more preparation for adult life required, so that they won’t have to provide competition for the adults by taking away opportunities for leaving imprints.

            In such a situation, the main person available for leaving meaningful imprints is oneself.  And they have to be strong intense imprints in order to feel meaningful.  And the main sources for these imprints lies in the preparation for adult activity: the education and the extracurricular activities.  Grades, of course, are part of the public record.  But grades and the collection of extracurricular activities have an outsized effect on students who, in today’s world, have no other meaningful way of measuring their self-worth.  This is particularly true as many life activities  outside of the larger educational experience, and in particular recreational activities related to screen technology, become more frictionless and more mediated.  Fewer and fewer things that require any meaningful participation.

            It is true that there are external imprints to be preserved by a good student record starting with grade school and ending with jobs in the top firms or organizations in a given vocational category.  But if one doesn’t get into the top schools or get jobs in the top firms and organizations, is one to be considered a failure?  Of course not!  But for many students, getting into the top schools or the top work situations is the only thing that matters.  And the stress doesn’t go away once one gets into the preferred places.  Then one has to constantly worry about if he is worthy of being in a top school or job, and if he is good enough to stay there.  Again for these students, fighting for incredible excellence is a way of generating abrasive friction within themselves and pulling themselves out of the numbness they feel from the frictionless mediated living environment in which they dwell from the experiential vacuum.  Therefore, for many of these students, being content with good but not top-notch schools and good but not top-notch job positions is out of the question.  Such life situations would not provide the abrasive friction these students need to pull themselves out of their numbness and feel alive.  It’s either total excellence or the living death of the experiential vacuum.

            In order to succeed today, a student cannot permit himself real down time.  He has to constantly be busy in order to accomplish success on the linear discrete path he has defined for himself.  But without down time to reflect on himself and his situation, he becomes like a robot that has been programmed to do tasks perfectly, a machine that sets off to perform its tasks with minimal tolerance for deviating from certain expectations.  So does a robot have the reflexive awareness to really enjoy and appreciate its successes?  I think not.  In the same way, students today trudge on, constantly on the move.  The only deviation they seem to allow themselves is the deviation of depression that results from experiencing significant deviations on their road to success or significant failures.

            And, of course, living in depression as a result of failure is, in a sense, similar to the external world, the frictionless mediated world of their daily lives.  One is an internal experiential vacuum, the other is an external experiential vacuum.  But the latter is something that students are trying to escape by creating an ongoing tension-pocket of their nonstop academic and later vocational treadmill.  And creating a tension-pocket state of being is just as important to these students as trying to make and preserve some meaningful imprints, both on themselves and on a world which does not have many experiential spaces for making and preserving meaningful imprints.  Ask assembly line factory workers about the meaningful imprints that they are preserving.

            Only with blind ambition does one have the opportunity to make and preserve meaningful imprints according to the agendas of these students.  Only with blind ambition can one generate the internalized abrasive friction to feel fully alive.  And only with blind ambition today is one able to generate the level and quality of internal stimulation to be able to pull oneself out of the numbness, the experiential vacuum of modern technological society, and still remain functioning and successful within the external world.  The problem is that the stress created by the abrasive friction that is internally generated can be so destructive.  And this is why so many students today are succumbing to so many different pathological psychological symptoms.  And given the expectations that develop within them in order to fight numbness, the treadmill of modern ambition becomes a treadmill that is very difficult to get off.

© 2019 Laurence Mesirow   

Eating Disorders And Modern Technological Society

            A growing problem in modern technological society is that of eating disorders.  Compulsive eating (also sometimes identified as binge-eating disorder), anorexia nervosa, and bulimia are the ones that we hear the most about.  People who eat too much and can get fat, people who starve themselves in order to have the apparently perfect body, and people who eat a lot and then try to get rid of it by vomiting, laxatives, enemas and severe exercise.  All of these are very serious conditions that are becoming increasingly prevalent all over the world.  There are many levels of causation affecting the experience of these disorders.  But I am particularly interested in the causes that are not normally covered in talking about them: the growing amount of numbness that people feel from living in an overly frictionless mediated living environment – an experiential vacuum – and the growing incapacity of people to make and preserve imprints  within modern technological fields of experience.

            In terms of numbness, in a living environment in which there are very few sources of organic stimulation, it is obvious that food is one source that is still prevalent.  And, as the opportunity to engage with organic stimulation dries up in the external fields of experience, it becomes natural to focus on a very easy internal way to feel alive when one is feeling numb.  When we are in the living death of depression, living in an internal experiential vacuum, food becomes a very convenient way to temporarily pull us out of it.  More precisely, it is as if the internal world of the whole gastro-intestinal system replaces the conventional external world as the world in which a person with an eating disorder lives.  By the same token, the loss of food in bulimia from vomiting, exercise, laxatives and enemas and the avoidance of food in anorexia from starvation can lead to still other kinds of organic stimulation.  All of these approaches to eating and food can lead to extreme sensations that pull a person out of numbness.

            And modern technological society has created many seductively tasty foods available to eat without preparation.  All the mass-produced sweets and the mass-produced salty snack foods.  And all the different kinds of fast food like hamburgers, fried chicken, and pizza.  And all the tasty ethnic foods – the result of living in a multi-ethnic society.  So the variety of foods has expanded considerably – foods that at least initially form the gastronomic furniture and architecture of the increasingly important internalized world of experience.  Different foods are the defined discrete figures that get broken down into the flowing blendable continual stimuli that is the basis of all organic stimuli and the grounding of our temporary satisfaction from taste.

            But eating disorders are not only a reflection of problems with feeling alive in the short term.  They are also a reflection of problems with projecting one’s capacity to feel alive into a more distant future.  If one is unable to preserve his imprints in more conventional ways in an overly frictionless mediated living environment, then at least he can preserve his imprints on himself.  He can overeat to the point of becoming obese.  He can starve himself to the point of becoming extremely thin or even to the point of killing himself.  Death from anorexia nervosa is certainly a strong imprint one can also leave on family and friends.  It is certainly a contribution to one’s personal surrogate immortality in the form of the powerfully sad and tragic memories that are left on the people around the victim.

            But even when anorexia doesn’t lead to death, it certainly leads to a long-term concern among family and friends who, when they become aware of what is happening to the person suffering from this condition, suddenly start paying a lot more attention to him than previously.  As an anorexic drops in weight, he leaves a scarring permanent imprint on the people around him.  And although his problem isn’t so immediately obvious, when the people around a bulimic become aware of some of the methods that he is using, that also preserves a very strong imprint on the awareness of these people.  Although many bulemics try to keep their extreme methods secret for purging the food they have binged on.

            Sustained compulsive overeating usually leads to obesity.  And because obesity is so prevalent today and because it does not generate quite the same alarm bells in the family and friends that surround the person, compulsive overeating does not lead to the same levels of concern.  In many ethnic groups, obesity is implicitly encouraged.  And obesity is not perceived among many people to be life-threatening.  Again, so many people in modern technological society are obese that it seems about normal.

            Now some compulsive overeaters, like some anorexics and bulemics, are aware they have a problem and seek out programs that help people with eating disorders.  But it is a constant struggle for them to control their food intake, because their internal gastrointestinal world is the one world, the one field of experience, where they feel truly alive.  And getting fatter is just a way for many of them to make their internal world of experience bigger.  Getting fatter is also a way of preserving imprints on themselves.  And the people around them will certainly maintain memories that they have become fat.  To the extent that some of these people may want to help the obese person with what they perceive as a problem, the obesity becomes a vehicle by which the obese person can open or sustain channels of making and receiving imprints with others and thus pull himself out of his numbness, out of his experiential vacuum.  Particularly, when a support group is involved like Overeaters Anonymous, the process of controlling one’s food intake and losing weight becomes a source of emotional bonding.  And because it is the process of losing weight that is the source of emotional bonding, the process can never be completed or else the person would lose his reason for emotional support in the group.  Compulsive overeating is perceived by the members of the group to be a chronic illness that has to be forever monitored.  As are anorexia and bulimia.  And the way of dealing with these illnesses is to substitute the external world stimulation of human connection for the internal world stimulation of food.

            Because, when all is said and done, what this is all about is pulling people out of living in the experiential vacuum created by modern technological society.  An experiential vacuum in which people live lives that are too frictionless and too mediated.

© 2019 Laurence Mesirow

Trying To Hold On To So Little

            One of the most interesting social phenomena today in modern technological society is the tendency of people, particularly young people, to use their purchasing power to buy experiences rather than things.  A lot of people today rather rent things and use things on a temporary basis, rather than actually own things.  And there are various reasons that have been given for this.  But for the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on one stream of thought.  People need novel focused active experiences, in order to pull themselves out of the ongoing numbness from all the frictionless mediated experiences they encounter living in our technologically-transformed world.  In more traditional natural environments, there is a lot of sensory variety and, therefore, a lot of experiential variety to be had living in fixed spaces.  In such environments, travel is nice, but it is a bonus for most people (with the exception of nomads) and not such a necessity as it is for people today.  Nowadays, people use the transformative shock of travel to pull themselves out of their increasingly robotic work, study and general life routines.

            But travel is not the only type of experience that is purchased today.  Exercise classes, yoga classes, massage, martial arts and all experiences that deal directly with physical stimulation.  Music is heard on You Tube, Spotify and Pandora, and not from objects that are owned such as compact discs.  Granted there is a revival in the purchases of vinyl records, but this still does not touch the lives of most people today.  People don’t bother, in most cases, to own hard copy photos anymore.  They just keep photos archived on their smartphones and computers.  And, of course, why buy a car, when you can take Uber and Lyft almost any place you could want to go locally.

            The key is to travel light on the journey of life today.  A lot of possessions are experienced today as a burden, something that holds a person down and prevents him from really living.  Translated into the language of my philosophical model, people don’t want to have to bother with a lot of defined discrete figures in their lives.  Extensive ownership of things requires an ongoing commitment to them and an ongoing commitment to a defined discrete place to keep them, to store them.  Traditionally, in our capitalist society, accumulating a lot of possessions has not only been a sign of success, but a demonstration of one’s capacity for commitment.  Having a place to store one’s things is an extension of one’s personal gravity.  One’s things demonstrate who one is on an ongoing basis.  Valued things are not easily discarded and neither is one’s sense of self as emblemized by what one owns.  And having a predictable source of stimulation of self, such as things over time, is itself an important possession, defined discrete figures that allow one to determine one’s place in society, so that one can have a productive occupational role and sustained bonded relationships both in terms of family and friends.  So possessions can be not only a result of success, but also a sharpened signal to a person to indicate how to move along a defined path of success.

            Many young people today travel light not only in terms of possessions but also in terms of relationships.  People float in and out of sexual and romantic relationships.  People move a lot for work today, so that it becomes harder to sustain strong family relationships and friendships.  Speaking of work, employees have no expectation of lifetime commitment to jobs.  When new experiences are the goal, novelty and variety are what matters in sex, romance, friendship, family and employment.  Yes, even family.  Look at all the blended families that are being formed after divorce.

            It has been stated that one reason that young people have turned against ownership is that modern capitalism has been seducing people to buy a lot of things they don’t need to keep the economies humming and that a lot of the stuff is junk anyway.  Perhaps this has an element of truth to it.  Many people in their parents’ generation had acquired so much stuff that they were drowning in their possessions.  That being said, I still feel that on a deep level, the problem has really been a lack of organic stimuli from more traditional more natural living environments.  Organic experiences give people the flowing blendable continual stimuli that they need, and when people can have such experiences, they don’t need what becomes a tension-pocket of things to try and connect with the external world..

            And yet having experiences divorced from the commitment of ownership can be problematic.  Experiences come and go.  They can make imprints on us, but when we are simply the consumers, we are not making and preserving any significant imprints on the surfaces of the fields of experience that surround us.  In recreational activities, when we buy things to own, we are actually making an imprint, showing our taste both to ourselves as well as to the people around us.  To the extent that it is a lasting possession, it becomes a preserved imprint both on ourselves and on others.  When we buy a lot of similar items, we develop what would be called a collection.  Whether it is stylish clothes or old books, stamps, coins or works of art, these collections reveal a lot about ourselves both to ourselves and others.

            On another level, our possessions help to ground us in our fields of experience in the external world.  In a strange way, they mirror and model for us, as we aspire to the mass, matter and substance in the things that we hold.  So that we don’t end up floating through our numbing modern technological living environments like ghosts.  By imitating the physicality of things, it allows us to make and preserve imprints in the external world and then to help us make a surrogate immortality in preparation for death.

            Yes, there is no doubt that too many things can crowd us, particularly if they are junk.  We call people with too many things hoarders.  They are people with an addiction to things. Piles of possessions, lots of clutter that leads to the creation of tension pockets, disjunctive juxtapositions of simply too many things leading to visual abrasive friction. But a rejection of possessions as manifested particularly among young people today can also be pathological.  A desire for life experiences is healthy.  But experiences without commitment in the form of possessions, similar to experiences without relationships can lead in the end to a sense of emptiness.  Meaningful possessions and meaningful relationships are basically committed experiences.  Experiences that give us grounding and stability as we pass through the narrative of our lives.

(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow

Experiencing Empathy Through A Screen

            There have been a lot of articles over the last ten years about the decline of empathy among American college students.  As empathy would be considered to be a positive trait to have in a society – a trait that helps to bond people together and helps to create social stability, it would be important to try and understand what could be the cause of this decline.  As you probably can imagine, given the focus of this column on modern technology, I believe that interaction with modern technology has a lot to do with it.  There have already been discussions about this, particularly within the context that use of modern technology, particularly consumer technology, takes away time that could be used to have direct face-to-face contact with other people.  I believe the problem is more complex than this and involves changes in a person as a result of ongoing contact with screen reality experiences.

            But before I go into a discussion of these changes, I’d like to explore what empathy is and how it differs from sympathy.  Sympathy involves giving solace and comfort to people who are experiencing pain, suffering or even discomfort in their daily life situations.  It requires giving support to a person with problems in such a way that the person giving the support maintains strong defined discrete personal boundaries.  And whatever emotional help is given, it allows the person receiving it to also maintain strong defined discrete personal boundaries.  There is an atmosphere in this emotional connection, whereby the person offering sympathy appreciates the distress of the person with problems in the form of a vague overview, a general summary approach that doesn’t really dig into the deeper details of what is bothering the person receiving the sympathy.  People who go to funerals offer sympathy to the bereaved.  It is like a formal ceremonial display of concern in which both the comforter and the mourner play very precise careful defined discrete roles.

            Empathy, on the other hand, has nothing of the formal or ceremonial.  Empathy is an emotional connection that breaks through personal boundaries.  The comforter blurs together with the person in distress through flowing blendable continual expressions of emotional grounding.  The comforter gets into the details of the distressed person’s life to break down the sense of isolation that is so much a part of the distressed person’s problems.  By getting inside the distressed person’s world, the distressed person derives approval from the comforter and a sense of greater security from knowing that he’s not dealing with his stress by himself.  So empathy becomes a vehicle by which a person’s problems act as the foundation for binding people together emotionally as well as helping to bind the distressed person together emotionally from within.  In other words, empathy is a kind of emotional mortar that holds people together both from without and from within.

            This is why studies made over the last ten years showing a decline in empathy among different groups of people are so troubling.  They show a decline in one of the most important components in emotional connection.  Without empathy, society starts to crumble apart.

            From another perspective, sympathy provides the emotional foundations from which a comforter makes and preserves more shallow imprints on the person with stresses.  For instance, a condolence card is nice, but when a person dies, many friends, family members and acquaintances also come to the funeral and sign their name in a book.  The bereaved certainly take note of who signed the book, but signing the book, in the long run, does not represent an imprint with long-term transformative ramifications.  Yes, a signature remains in the book for mourners, but how often are mourners going to refer to it, particularly with the passage of time.  On the other hand, empathy leads to deeper more significant imprints on the part of the comforter, imprints that can be more transformative in their effects on the distressed person. An empathic comforter would perhaps spend time with a mourner or mourners to help pull them out of their depression.  And yet the loss of empathy in the previously mentioned studies seem to indicate a numbness with regard to people’s sincere interest today in and care for the people around them.  So what is going on here?

            What is going on is that people are spending too much time in the mediated experiences of screen reality and not enough time in the primary experiences of external world reality.  The screen realities of movies, television, video games, computers, smartphone and tablets create fields of experience that occupy a lot of our time and that prevents direct contact with other human beings.  Even to the extent that we are communicating with other human beings, we are doing it through the mediated channels of phone conversations, texting, emails and Skype.  We spend less and less time in the full flesh-and-blood experience of face-to-face contact with other humans.  As a result, we don’t learn to pick up on the nonverbal sensory cues that allow us to really connect with a person.  The non-definable flowing blendable continual stimuli: three-dimensional physical appearance, gestures, vocal inflections, even smells that allow us to bond more deeply with a coherent organic person.  Screen reality gives us the equivalent of laboratory data about a person, selective information that gives us defined focused aspects of a person, but not a larger coherent understanding.

            How can one empathize with someone that merely exists for another person as fragmented data or the equivalent of barely connected pixels?  One becomes numb to the other person.  Not even capable of sympathy which represents a more mediated connection to a person who we should be experiencing as a defined discrete but also coherent entity.

            Screen reality media model for us a relationship to our world that is distant from that we would normally experience as human beings, if we were not so immersed in technology.  They flatten our fields of experience, and they flatten our emotions as well.  They don’t contain the flowing blendable continual stimuli that are the foundational stimuli for the natural bonding that occurs between people and, by extension, the empathy that gives support to the distressed and meaning to the comforters.  But screen reality media occupy so much of our time that they allow precious little time for direct primary experience external world connections with other people.  In effect, these screen reality media fill our time much of the time with the equivalent of empty calories, junk experiences.  Empty calories and junk food leave us feeling depleted of energy.  Screen reality media, with the vacuumized experiences that they offer, leave us feeling empty of feeling, leave us feeling simply numb.

            And when one is simply numb, he is definitely incapable of empathy.

© 2019 Laurence Mesirow

Trying To Use Animation To Animate Ourselves

            How many times when we were kids did we see characters in cartoons and cartoon series and think about how much fun it would be to interact with some of these characters in the external world?  Of course, there was always the interaction that was possible with humans dressed up as these characters in places like Disneyland and Disney World.  But past a certain age, most kids realized that these weren’t real animated characters any more than the person who dressed up as Santa Claus was really Santa Claus.  So Disney researchers have developed a “Magic Bench” where you sit down and that triggers an augmented reality experience where 3D animated characters “sit” on the bench next to you.  I am not going to go into an explanation of how this works, because it is very complex and not very relevant to my discussion of the ramifications of such experiences for the people who sit on the “Magic Bench”.  I have discussed augmented reality and virtual reality experiences previously. Actually this sounds more like a virtual reality experience to me, but Disney Research, the company that makes these benches, describes the experience as augmented reality, so for that reason, I will stick to calling it augmented reality.  Anyway, there is something particularly seductive and particularly dangerous about a device that can somehow mentally fool people into thinking that they are experiencing fantasy figures as phenomena in the external world.

            What is the danger?  It relates to what fantasy figures are configured to be for humans in their traditional settings.  Basically, before modern technology came along, fantasy figures were ethereal vacuumized images that existed in our minds and in static works of art.  We never had any doubt that a fantasy figure or a work of art was anything more than an object or an image on an object.  To the extent that it came alive, it came alive in the dreamy vacuumized processes of our minds.  And these processes always existed in a distant realm, separate and apart from our direct sensory experience of the physical external world.

            Again all of this exists distinct from the fantastic representation of gods and goddesses and other spirit figures in the external world.  These spirit figures, for those of us who have not been believers, are just more fantasy figures.  For those of us who are believers, they represent figures that are part of a vacuumized spiritual world that exists apart from our minds, figures that would go on existing even if the human mind didn’t exist.

            Returning to the Magic Bench, the augmented reality as represented by the experience of these 3D animated fantasy figures becomes a vehicle by which the boundaries between the realm of fantasy and the realm of the real external world become totally blurred.  If such a Magic Bench becomes commonplace in different locales, it could lead to fundamental disorientation in the fields of experience of people and, particularly, of children.  What do I mean by this?  The vacuumized phenomena of these animated figures will blur into the physical phenomena of the real world and will start to vacuumize the physical phenomena of external world reality.  Particularly, in our perceptions, it will vacuumize other real people.  It will affect our capacity to bond with these other people.  Actually, it will affect our capacity to even bond with ourselves, as we become more and more numb to ourselves.  In other words, our perceptions of ourselves will become somewhat vacuumized, as if we were augmented reality ourselves.

            At the same time, our experience of these fantasy figures on the Magic Bench will lead to endowing fantasy in general with a certain external world physicality, as if living fantasy figures existed somehow in the external world in forms other than human costumed figures.  It will lead, in other words, to seeing things in fantasy images almost as if we were experiencing psychotic delusions.  This will affect our abilities to properly function in the external world, as one cannot properly function in the external world, if one is not properly grounded in it.

            I must say that I have no problems whatsoever with enjoying fantasy figures and worlds of fantasy in general.  I believe that such experiences stretch our imagination and our capacity for creativity, both of which are very important components of the human personality.  I just don’t like it when they can potentially interfere with our abilities to connect with other people and to navigate the external world.

            Speaking of imagination and creativity, when fantasy figures appear as if they actually exist in the real external world, how does that affect our capacity to use our own imagination and creativity in different situations?  Particularly if fantasy figures appear real and start to act as sources of both mirroring and modeling in our daily lives, that could diminish the space in our  minds to use our own creativity in a meaningful way and to develop our own fantasies.  It could diminish our capacity to make and even preserve imprints using our creativity and not just in terms of making our own fantasy figures, which most of us won’t do.  Rather, in terms of coming up with creative solutions to our life needs.  Now, as previously stated, fantasy and reality blur in situations like the Magic Bench, and although our own use of creativity gets muted in this situation, it doesn’t mean that external world fantasy as represented by Disney fantasy figures, can’t rush in and penetrate our perception of reality.  And as reality becomes vacuumized by fantasy, our perception of reality becomes distorted and more prone to delusion.  But delusion is not a vehicle by which humans constructively use their creativity to make and preserve imprints.  We can say that first illusion and then delusion replaces constructive creativity, when fantasy and reality blur together in situations like the Magic Bench.  It is not a very healthy situation.

© 2019 Laurence Mesirow

Mechanizing A Field Of Fragrance

            Smell stands in the middle of the five senses in terms of the degree of immediacy to humans.  We can see things far away as a result of the transmission of electromagnetic waves.  Sound is also transmitted through waves and can also be heard far away, although not as far as the things we see.  We can see the sun, but we can’t hear it, at least with our naked ears.  Taste is transmitted by different chemical molecules that touch taste receptors in our mouths.  Taste stimuli have to be right next to a part of human anatomy to be perceived.  And yet we don’t taste the whole food itself, but rather chemical molecules that are released from the physical solid or liquid.  Actually, most of what we call taste actually comes from the sense of smell.  But that is beyond the scope of this paper.  With touch, we experience directly the immediate contact with the object or mass being experienced.  No mediating waves or molecules standing between the human and the phenomenon being experienced.

            Like taste, smell is transmitted through chemical molecules.  But unlike taste, smell is carried through the air.  So it can travel over a greater distance than taste.  But not so far as sight and sound.  A smell can come from a gas (hydrogen sulfide), a liquid (a perfume) or a solid (a soap or a food or a forest).  Because it is airborne, it is mediated like light or sound, but it is more like taste and touch in terms of the immediate contact by humans with some airborne substance.  We can say that, generally speaking, sight and sound are based more on defined discrete stimuli, taste and touch are based more on flowing blendable continual stimuli and smell is based on a combination of the two.

            Nevertheless, there are people who want to use modern technology as a vehicle for being able to precisely measure and control the sensations emanating from smell stimuli and to turn smell into almost exclusively a defined discrete stimulus.  The inventors of the Moodo smart home aroma diffuser hope to replace scented candles and scented sticks by allowing people to mix fragrances together from different capsules to create “endless” new scents and thus to be able to precisely calibrate how a room is going to smell.  Furthermore, all of this can be done from an iPhone or some other smart device.  Not only can one calibrate the proportions of different foundation aromas to create a smell that is just right for one’s mood, but one can set it up in such a way that the aromas is released only during the period that we want to smell it.  Supposed perfect control over something that is as nebulous and amorphous as a fragrance.  One can turn it off when one is ready to go to bed and doesn’t want the olfactory stimulation to keep him awake.   Moodo says a person can “DJ” his aroma from a smart device.  I’ve got an idea.  Why not create smellathons, where people can go and experience a series of different aromas created by a real smell DJ?

            Now we are going to have the opportunity to do what, at one point, would have seemed impossible: turn a more immediate sensation like smell into a highly mediated experience.  We will focus on artificially controlled fragrances instead of aromas that we find coming from more natural sources in the external world.  Now, you will say that perfumes and colognes are contrived fragrances.  This is true.  However, they are made by professional fragrance makers who mix together lots of different chemicals to create truly unique perfumes and colognes.  These professional fragrance makers are olfactory artists, unlike people who create their “unique aromas” from combining 3 fragrance capsules in different proportions.  The latter are like fragrance engineers controlling the situation basically from their I Phones.

            No matter how many different aromas can be created by mixing together powders from their three basic capsules, there is not going to be the variety or complexity of smells available from the oils, perfumes, colognes and air fresheners on the market.  But using Moodo with its apparent variety is going to displace, in many cases, these other sources of fragrances and is going to constrict the world of aromas for the people who use it.

            Some will say that using Moodo is better than no fragrance at all.  Perhaps.  But must we always find technological solutions for all our experiential needs?  The moment we do that, we mechanize and routinize the solution and suck some of the flavor out of the experience.  Particularly is this true with a world of experience that is so immediate as the world of smell.  Are we then going to develop a taste Moodo or a touch Moodo?  Will there be any aspects of our world of experience not tainted by technological manipulation?

            Another perspective from which to look at this is that of making imprints.  It is impossible to preserve an imprint using a fragrance within a life experience except as a memory, but a fragrance certainly is an effective way to make an imprint on oneself and on the external world.  Picking an independent fragrance for a room represents making a far more meaningful imprint than trying to mix together “unique” fragrances from three basic scent capsules.  Maybe one can create many fragrances from all the different combinations of the scent capsules, but there are so many uniquely different scents outside of these three scent capsule that aren’t being covered by the mixtures from the three scent capsules.  Will people become dependent on Moodo or similar inventions for their smell environment?  Will it displace an appreciation for fragrances like the smells of nature or like perfumes and colognes?  In the desire of so many people today to control as many aspects of their living environment through technology as possible, are they, in some cases, creating drab trivialized choices like from capsule-based smells, making trivialized mechanistic imprints, in order to feel that they are truly in charge of their living environments.  Something is being lost in the process of humans trying to gain control of so much.  It’s called life.

(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow

The Transformation In The Way People Hurt One Another

            Recently, I published another article on the relationship between the configuration of criminal expression in a society, on the one hand, and the configuration of different kinds of stimuli in the living environment on the other.  In other words, how does the extreme anti-social aggressive behavior of certain members of society become activated and influenced by the fields of experience in which they live.  However, I have come to realize that, as not all antisocial aggressive behavior is criminal, there is still a whole other area of hurtful conduct to be considered in relation to humans and living environments.  In terms of law enforcement, this lower key hurtful conduct is simply under the radar.  Which doesn’t mean that it can’t leave a meaningful imprint on the people who are on the receiving end of it. 

            Just as with crimes, we can divide this lower key hurtful conduct, these slights as it were, into slights of passion in connection with more traditional natural environments and slights of numbness in connection with modern technological environments.  Slights of passion would include directed insults, slander, mocking, bullying and seeking out fights.  These are slights where there are focused targets for anger, aggression and resentment that are stimulated not only by the targets themselves but by all the passionate organic stimuli that are activated within more traditional natural fields of experience.  The organic stimuli in more traditional living environments elicit a lot of strong emotions in a person, emotions that will tend to metaphorically explode a person apart unless he finds outlets on which to release them.  And a person in a more traditional natural environment needs only focused targets to keep his emotions focused so that he doesn’t explode apart in the process of expressing his strong emotions.  So, independent of whatever supposed grievances that a person might have against someone, having a defined discrete figure for the target of his emotions creates a funnel for his emotions that, without its presence, could lead to the sender getting hurt in the process of expressing his emotions.

            Again, just as with crimes, we can see an increasing transformation in the nature of slights as modern technology has displaced nature and more traditional architecture and living arrangements.  A lot of the new slights can be put in the category of omission rather than commission.  Because of smartphones and computers, people are increasingly communicating in less bonded more mediated ways.  First, there was the loss of a person’s visual presence with the telephone.  No more body language and gestures.  Then there was the loss of the audio voice with emails and texts.  No more vocal inflection.  Slights or miscommunications occur as a result of the lack of completeness in such an imperfect method of sending messages that can’t fully convey the sender’s intent.  But even in the external world, the numbness created by modern technology permeates the content of human communication.  A lot of retail and service people don’t bother to say hello to their customers and have difficulty even acknowledging the human presence in another person.  And think of the classic scene today of a group of preteens sitting around clustered together texting people who are someplace else and finding themselves incapable of properly relating to the kids sitting next to them.  These are slights against human nature.  Perhaps these modern preteens are too numb to even be aware that they are being slighted.  If everybody goes through life today with their lives so mediated that they barely metaphorically rub up against one another, what is there to compare the anemic nature of their contacts to?

            And yet, in spite of the numbness, there are people who are aware that something has gone wrong in human connection.  And these are the people who don’t sink easily into a numb robotic posture.  These are the people who suffer from the increasing lack of meaningful imprints that they are both trying to make and receive in the context of their daily social contacts.  These are the people who fall prey more easily to the emotional disturbances generated by modern daily life.  The cause of their pathology is not some focused problem.  Rather, it literally surrounds them.  So although specific slights of numbness, specific omissions, can be hurtful to the person who receives them, the cumulative effects of multiple slights (a cumulative effect that we do all experience to a greater or lesser extent today) have their own harmful results.  And given the increasingly technological environment in which we all live today, for those who are particularly sensitive to this pattern of omission, it is difficult to escape.

            Now just as with the evolution of crimes, so with the evolution of slights, there has been a great deal of overlap in the presence of slights of passion and slights of numbness in human history.  There are still plenty of situations even today, where one sees the expression of slights of passion.  Bullying, and fraternity hazing are still rampant.  Mocking and slander are still present in the tabloids.  Although one might ask if these slights of commission are always slights of passion, purposely directed at the apparent target. Or is it that, in some cases, perhaps the focused targets are almost accidental and chosen to stimulate the aggressor to life by creating a trumped-up target, in order to fight off numbness.  These are what we would have to call transitional slights, having aspects of both slights of passion and slights of numbness.

            In any case, there is no doubt that slights of numbness interfere considerably with the capacity of people in modern technological society to bond with one another.  These slights are both causes of and symptoms of psychopathology today.  And on a larger scale, they interfere with the effective functioning of families, communities and societies.

(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow

Mechanical Solutions to Mechanical Bad Habits

                        Do you have problems with trichotillomania, dermatillomania or onychophagia?  Can you pronounce them properly?  All kidding aside, these are just fancy names for hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting.  If you have problems with any of these or with thumb sucking, modern technology has an answer for you.  A company called HabitAware has invented a device called Keen.  Keen is a bracelet that a person wears that vibrates every time he moves in a direction towards carrying out the problem behavior that he is experiencing.  These vibrations help a person to retrain his brain so that he is no longer tempted to carry out the problem behavior.

            What we have here is a form of Pavlovian conditioning.  Like the kind of conditioning that Behaviorist psychologists have used in their training of rats.  Actually, there are a lot of psychotherapists today who incorporate behaviorist elements in their therapy with humans.  Behaviorist theories are very appealing to many therapists, because they are so direct and so focused on particular problems.  And, on the surface, they seem to provide relatively short-term solutions to symptoms that can generate a lot of suffering.  Keen is a way of applying behaviorist principles to oneself without the need of a psychotherapist or a concerned parent.

            By now, you probably realize that I wouldn’t be writing about Keen, if I didn’t see problems with using it.  The biggest problem is that we are conditioned in other ways in the process of being conditioned to not engage in our bad habits.  Behaviorism answers that the main way we humans are influenced in life is through what I call defined discrete stimuli.  These are stimuli that have defined borders and defined duration.  They are measurable and focused.  And because they are so defined, they are easy to manipulate.  And because they are so easy to manipulate, it makes them easy to use in order to manipulate people.  In order for a person to be very receptive to these stimuli, he has to reconfigure his mind to not be so receptive to other forms of stimuli that are distinct from defined discrete stimuli.  There are stimuli that have blurring boundaries and a blurry duration.  These are the stimuli that I have previously called flowing, blendable, continual stimuli.  They are like a wave on the ocean with an imprecise beginning and an imprecise end.  They are not measurable and they are not as easy to manipulate.  They are more complex than defined discrete stimuli.  Because of this, it is much more difficult to predict cause and effect relationships with them.

            And yet it is precisely the complexity of these stimuli and the complexity of their effects that allow humans to maintain their free will.  Because these stimuli are complex, we don’t know how precisely they are going to affect us.  However, we do know that sources of flowing blendable continual stimuli are going to be entities that create mirroring and modeling for humans and that lead to flowing blendable continual responses from humans.  Responses that can’t easily be predicted.  It is in these complex unpredictable responses that people maintain their freedom as organisms rather than becoming machines.

            But something like Keen, with its simple defined discrete stimuli that warn a person when he is about to engage in a bad habit, elicits simple direct robot responses in order to deal with certain compulsive bad habits.  A person is thus subtly molded into a robot in attempting to deal with the bad habits that bother him so much.  A global compulsive behavior is used as a remedy for eliminating a few simple compulsive irritations.

            I myself believe that a more organic approach would be psychodynamic therapy.  Psychodynamic therapy deals with emotion, the flow of memories, the flow of free associations, flowing blendable continual phenomena to re-stimulate that part of one’s mind that is more organic, more mammalian.  Because a psychological healing involves not only the formal defined discrete goal of the healing itself.  A psychological healing also involves a series of secondary transformations that are generated by the journey that a patient takes in moving towards a healing.  And this is because such a healing seldom involves a person being restored to exactly the way he was before the psychological illness started to appear.  Hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting and thumb sucking can all be viewed as controllable repetitive mechanistic habits.  Do we really want to attack them from the point of view of a mechanistic healing that leaves a mechanistic overlay over our minds?  In a sense, using such an approach leaves a residue of a mechanistic predisposition in a person that leaves that person vulnerable to other mechanistic repetitive behavior.

            In general, sometimes the best way of dealing with a problem is not a direct defined discrete approach where we go in to solve a primary problem without dealing with the secondary problems that surround it.  This is particularly true of psychological problems.  Hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting and thumb sucking are not isolated problems but rather parts of clusters of problems all of which relate to deeper emotional problems.  In other words, these habits are actually symptoms of other deeper problems.  Keen may help a person to temporarily repress these surface problems, but the stress, the anxiety remain.  So other surface problems can present themselves to replace the original surface problems.  It is better to use an indirect flowing blendable continual approach of psychodynamic therapy to get rid of the surface problems discussed here as well as any other secondary surface problems that may be presenting themselves as well as the deeper emotional problems that undergird the surface problems.

(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow