Volume 19, Number 16 -- April 26, 2010

As I See It: Depriving the Senses

Published: April 26, 2010

by Victor Rozek

One of the more intriguing but seldom quoted lines of English letters comes to us courtesy of James Joyce. It's from a short story called A Painful Case, part of a collection of 15 stories about Irish life titled Dubliners. In one brief sentence Joyce not only introduces his main character, but manages to capsulize the totality of his cheerless existence: "Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body."

With poetic brevity Joyce speaks of dissociation, lack of awareness, and a life largely void of sensory input. And although Joyce never sat in front of a computer screen, he could easily be describing people who work with computers. Because a generation of IT professionals is moving slowly--and perhaps irrevocably--further and further away from their bodies.

All information, and therefore all experience, begins with the five senses. Hence, the degree to which we are able to savor the richness of life depends on how fully our senses are engaged. As we limit sensory input and learn to rely on a subset of our sensory capacity, we necessarily limit aliveness and enjoyment.

One of the unintended challenges of working as an IT professional is that computers offer a very narrow range of sensory experience. Even though there are tactile and auditory aspects to computer usage, the primary experience is visual. And for the most part, that experience is predictable and repetitive.

Granted, it can also be intellectually demanding, requiring periods of intense mental engagement and bursts of creativity. But catering, as it does, to the dominance of the visual/mental aspects of the sensory pallette, working with computers comes at a price: loss of sensory acuity. It is illustrative of a remarkable shift in human survival strategy; one in which dependence on technology trumps reliance on a full array of sensory data. The greater the fusion of man and machine--Ray Kurzweil's longed for "singularity"--the less reliable sensory data becomes. Kurzweil calls it "transcending biology," which is another way of saying we are outgrowing the body. In Kurzweil's view, the body is an impediment because it is mortal. But long before mortality beckons, the body can become a hindrance if it is not being used in accordance with its design.

At work, the typical programmer remains seated, body in a collapsed position, shoulders rolled forward, neck angled toward the screen. Reduced to its elemental functions, the job requires looking and thinking, while blocking out all external distractions that impede concentration. Year after year of sitting in front of a computer screen creates what Alan Davidson calls "sensory amnesia." For a large part of each day (and often into the evening, as people spend more and more time online), information that normally comes from the body itself--or from external stimuli available to the other senses--is ignored in favor of information that appears on the screen. Like a baseball pitcher who makes his living using only one arm, and pays little attention to his non-dominant arm, we are training our bodies to operate with sensory limitations. Add the fact that programming can be a solitary pursuit, and the result for many is not only isolation from self, but isolation from others.

Symptoms of sensory privation can include a propensity to be clumsy and forgetful. Body splits may also be evident, where, for example, a person presents a large torso but skinny legs, or muscular legs and a frail torso. It's as if half the body has been developmentally ignored and connection with that part has been partially severed. As a result, there is often an inability to identify where tension, anxiety, anger, and other powerful emotions reside within the body. For better or worse, emotions always find physical expression. Muscles tighten, palms get sweaty, throats constrict. Over time, trapped emotions will present as illness. Normally, full sensory awareness includes moment-by-moment cognizance of the body's reaction to internal and external stimuli, facilitating release of harmful energy. But people with limited sensory awareness don't just ignore the warning signs of illness, they literally don't feel them.

The process begins in childhood. Since the explosion of personal computing followed by the proliferation of games and hand-held devices, the play habits of children have dramatically changed. Fewer and fewer kids spend time outdoors, climbing trees, riding bikes, shooting hoops. Fewer kids spend time moving their bodies. Instead, leisure time is spent on Facebook or texting friends.

Obesity is a widely reported outcome. More permanent, however, are the changes neuroscientists are finding in the brains of young people. They appear to be rewiring their neurology, and one visible result is an abbreviated attention span. Susan Greenfield, who studies physiology and the brain at Oxford, sees reason for concern. "My fear," she writes, "is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment." Paradoxically, the shorter the attention span, the greater the need to be entertained, creating an escalating reliance on computer-based stimulation.

Another visible result, according to a teacher of 30 years, is "a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others." It is, of course, not possible to experience a decline in empathy for others without simultaneously losing touch with yourself.

Some percentage of these youths grow up to become IT professionals. They bring with them years of exposure to computer games, social networks, and instant messaging. By the time they enter the workforce, they've already developed an addictive relationship to computer technology. Then they perform jobs that offer isolation and repetitive visual stimulation to the detriment of other sensory input. In their spare time, they augment the lack of sensory stimulation with more technology. Teilhard de Chardin would not be pleased. His observation that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, is sooo passť. We are evolving to become detached beings having a digital experience.

It may be fun, but playing Wii golf is not the same as playing golf. There is no walking, no breeze against the skin, no sound of birds chirping, no scent of freshly mowed grass, no feel of club striking ball. From the perspective of sensation, it is an impoverished experience; like eating the menu instead of the meal.

Alan Davidson, whose Web site is dedicated to the wisdom of the body, speaks of the Five IQs (physical, emotional, mental, moral, and spiritual). The absolute foundation for each, he points out, is sensation. "Your body is your oldest and dearest friend. It is the map of your life." he writes. It is "riddled with sense receptors communicating non-stop with your brain--to the tune of 4 billion bits per second." Most of that data are, of necessity, ignored; but the degree to which we pay attention delimits the experience we call being human.

Whether it's a bio-chemical representation of a feeling, or the impact thoughts have on our bodies, or the sensations that come with the consequences of our actions, or the life force that flows through us, a wealth of information is always available. The challenge for people enamored with technology is not to overindulge. Because what you pay attention to determines what you get, but what you pay attention to also determines what you miss.

In Joyce's story, Duffy works in a bank, sits at a desk, and lives an orderly, predictable, unimaginative life. He senses are dimmed. There is no truth to be found within his body; no awareness of his own needs. He drives away the only woman who cares for him, and in the end is left to ponder his terrible aloneness.

With not even a computer to console him.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Brian Kelly, Shannon O'Donnell,
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