We boast that we have conquered matter, and forget that it is matter that has enslaved us—okakura
Children are taught to value specific approaches to sensory life that are highly regimented by our cultural rules. Indeed, psychologists have established that we have specific social norms and languages related to our use of time, space, touch, gesture, postures, faces, paralanguage and fashion (Nowicki and Duke, 1992)[i]. These norms are formulated in our aesthetics, understood to be the sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste (Zangwill, 2008)[ii].
If the web of social conventions contained by the aesthetics of media is easily acknowledged, it works synchronically with the narratives that exist within other areas of representation (Deleuze, 1968)[iii]. The notion of aesthetics refers to a broader set of values and believes of a given group that propagates through multiple systems of representation (Kelly, 1998)[iv]. One area of our culture we often do not associate with sensory aesthetics is our use of space.
Space has had a special place in our societies. Before societies imposed order upon their environments, there was an invisible order, “flow”. While it may appear chaotic, this “flow” has its own order which can only be experiences, not seen. For Deleuze and Guattari[xi], the earth is a perfect example of this flow as it is always in flux: the wind and rain, and other elements continuously affect it. Space is essential to the senses as it can promote or decrease our ability to sense “flow”. A natural space, even if invisible to de-sensitized humans, is what they refer to as a smooth space:
“ [Smooth space] is explored without calculation, without being quantified, it is constituted as a body of “rhyzomatiques” which are explored in the moment of travelling. (…) Smooth space must be embarked upon a tactile encounter with sound and color(…) The nomadism which belongs to a traversal of smooth space amounts to an activity of following the flow of matter, tracing and crossing smooth space. The space of nomadism is tactile, haptic, sonorous.” (West-pavlov, 2009, 182)[v]
This smooth nomadic space is the medium of “difference”, which according to Gilles Deleuze is core to our “being” (Deleuze, 1968, p. 39), In Difference and Repetition[i], Gilles Deleuze sets forth difference as being the multiplicities of transformation that reside alongside the actual. These creative differences are the change in all changes, the process that continues across time, repeating itself differently through novel transformations set out on alternative trajectories.
Difference is not about making a difference between two things, in opposition and contradiction. Instead, Deleuze defines difference as a concept that has freed itself from similarity and contrary, a concept of difference that resides alongside the actual. Difference refers to a real system of differential relations that creates actual spaces, times, and sensations. It resides in multiple, alternative realities that only exist in space and cannot be represented:
“Representation fails to capture the affirmed world of difference. Representation has only a single center, a unique and receding perspective, and in the consequence a false depth. It mediates everything, but mobilizes and moves nothing.” (Deleuze, 1968, p, 56)[vi].
Our body and senses are the only conduit to reading this “difference” since it can only be experienced. But over time, the establishment of representation, as the main form of perception, has made us give priority to the senses that were central to its development. As R. Acscott explains, while: “Aristotle identified just five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Neuroscience provides a further six: pain, balance, proprioception, kinaesthesia, sense of time, and sense of temperature.”(Ascott, 2010)[xiv]. These additional senses are those essential to sense and process inputs emanating from space and perceive the invisible flow of “difference”.
Philosophers are not the only ones to understand this smooth space as a medium of communication. Slowly, science is not only re-discovering a much broader array of senses, it is also beginning to re-discover the fullness of space.
Space is richer than we think and quantum physicists have now demonstrated that space is not empty. Dr. Wilson and his team at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, claimed to have conjured up light from nowhere simply by squeezing down empty space (New Scientist, Nov 18, 2011, p 18)[xv]. That would be the latest manifestation of a quantum quirk known as the Casimir effect: the notion that a perfect vacuum, the very definition of nothingness in the physical world, contains a latent power that can be harnessed to move objects and make things.
Scientists know that each living being has energy fields, which influence perception and its adaptation to the environment. Physicist Dr. Sean Carroll[xvi], explains that the discovery of the Higgs boson particle takes us to the edge of a new world because it confirms the principles of field theory. Field theory is one of the dominant dialectics of our era. According to Carroll, the Higgs boson is a vibration in a field. All particles are vibrations within fields. The simplest forms are the electric and magnetic fields. These fields extend through space, they pull and send out vibrations through space that we perceive as particles. The Higgs boson particle is unique because it is a vibration within a quantum field.
The difference between quantum states and classical states of matter is that classically, materials exhibit different phases, which ultimately depends on the change in temperature and/or density or some other macroscopic property of the material, whereas quantum phases can change in response to a change in a different type of order parameter (such as magnetic field or pressure).
When space is empty the Higgs boson is still there. We are moving through Higgs fields that affect the features of our particles. Since particles are vibrations then our body exchanges vibrations with everything within the environment. Physicists are hoping so: “ If our favorite models of dark matter are correct, then the way that ordinary mater that makes up you and me interacts with dark matter is by exchanging Higgs bosons”(Carroll, 2012)[xvii].
We can feel these energy flows as forms of communication, just like sharks do with electro-reception. We, like all animals, also produce electrical and magnetic fields signature. These sources of energy travel through the air. These energy flux move away from the source (us), travel in space and bounces off elements in space. It stands to reason that a human standing in the energy wave’s path, is touched and affected by it, just like candles are by electrical or magnetic energy.
This field theory is echoed in psychological theory. Scientists now understand that behavior is derived from a totality of coexisting facts and patterns of interaction between the individual and the total field, or environment. The concept, developed by Kurt Lewin[vii], holds that these coexisting facts make up a “dynamic field”, which means that the state of any part of the field depends on every other part of it.
Space is indeed much richer than we think. Some of us are more physiologically built to read these vibrations. Psychologists have demonstrated that some people, highly sensitive people, sense more than others. Recent research shows that this personality trait marks different functionality of the lower part of the brain, the one responsible for perceptions (UCSF, 2013). Heightened sensory processing is a reflection of sensory giftenedness, the ability to sense the “flow” and “difference” at the energetic level. In other words, HSP have the ability to sense subtle changes in space that most people do not perceive (Aron, 2010).
This puts them at a great disadvantage in our visual culture, within which space has been colonized and in the process emptied of its richness.
Colonization of space
Space is discursive, akin a media, it is a conduit for meta-narratives and part of relationships of power. Architecture, like media, is constructed in accordance to specific aesthetics that, via the forms of narratives it implies, mirror the dominant societal imaginary of its time.
Within our modern world, space has been transformed into a system of order that devalues heightened sensory skills, body gestures and behaviors that are a response to free flow. Difference became considered an aberration. This shift began with the colonization of space and over time, space became what Foucault calls a system of discipline:
“This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre to the periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed amongst the living beings, the sick and the dead – All this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism” (Discipline and punishment, 197, translated by West-Pavlov).
This apparatus of discipline allowed some ideas to come into views, those of controlled representation and excluded others, those of sensorial experiences. In the process of disciplining space, our culture eliminated the nomadic exploration of space by transforming it territories. As we began to create semi-formalized domains out of space, and as we developed a system marked by pre-formed routes of roads, canals and fences, we eliminated the possibility of the nomadic flow experience. (West-pavlov, 2009, 182)
This marked a deterritorialization of the nomadic experience towards “state” approved. The state and ruling class took control, took order away from the natural self and earth, and replaced the many ancient cultures of natural structures with its own beliefs and rituals. Pluralism of knowledge gave way to a controlled and ordered colonial and, often, Christian hierarchies.
Scholar Vandana Shiva writes:
“under the colonial influence the biological and intellectual heritage of non-western societies was devalued. The priorities of scientific development transformed the plurality of knowledge systems into a hierarchy of knowledge systems. When knowledge plurality mutated into knowledge hierarchy, the horizontal ordering of diverse but equally valid systems was converted into vertical ordering of unequal systems, and the epistemological foundations of western knowledge were imposed on non-western knowledge systems with the result that the latter were invalidated” (Shiva, 2000)[viii].
Such a colonization and control was necessary to condition humans to workplace discipline that depends, since the industrial revolution, on the calculative division of “regulated time-space zones” (Giddens, 1984)[ix]. The sensory experience of space, which was essential to inform us about ourselves and our environment, disappeared from our collective consciousness. Interestingly, the definition of the word “disease” makes this dissociation very appearant. It is defined as “a corporeal invasion of the self, a “thing” lying outside the self that enters to corrupt it” (Gilman, 1985, p109)[x]. This “thing” can be interpreted as the flow of difference. This idea that any influence from the “outside” of us is a pathology has been very detrimental to highly sensitive people, for whom identity is defined through sensing this flow. As spatial perception, quintessential to the natural self, became equivalent to an attack on the disembodied self and eliminated from our aesthetics, their way of being was invalidated. Key to this transformation has been modern medicine.
Modern Medicine as Sensorial Anesthetics
And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Another area of our culture that we do not often associate with aesthetics is modern medicine. Nevertheless, it is a particularly powerful discursive and propagation tool of aesthetics. Its status as science makes it seem impartial and renders individuals helpless in their being labelled as ill. Nevertheless, medical icons are no more “real” than “media” ones. Medical iconography borrows from and contributes to the general pool of images found in a culture. Medicine, like other “human sciences”, is a relatively powerful source of conventions since we do tend to see its semiotics as “objective”: compared to the conventions of media aesthetics. (Gilman, 1985, p.109)[xi].
Pathologies, for instance, are part of a systems of representation used to structure the projections of our anxieties. As such, they are necessary reductive, eliminating the particularities of an individual in favor of images that suit the need and values of the society of the time. Pathologies exist within our system of representation to create an opposition to what represents health and also to identify things that are “out of control”:
“ Order and control are antithesis to “pathology”. “Pathology” is disorder and the loss of control, the giving over of the self to the forces of that lie beyond the self”. (Gilman, 1985, p.24)
Of all the models of pathology, one of the most powerful is mental illness. Mental illness represents the elementally frightening possibility of loss of control over the self. This fear has contributed to our becoming disciplined image of ourselves, learning to be unaffected by the influence of flow and difference which could bring about loss of control. In this process we stopped being able to hear the signals from our sensory system.
Difference, itself, became pathologized. Over the last centuries, “Difference” both as the deuleuzian realm next to the factual but also in its broader senses of all ideas, cultures and forms of beings became abolished from social life and was relegated to stereotypes of illness, madness and/or stigmatized as abnormalities to be feared, avoided and eliminated.
The role of space played an important role in re-shaping and re-organizing identities and mental illness. It was central in a shift from exclusion of the insane via banishment, from an external to an internal mode of exclusion from society (Foucault, dits et ecrits iii, 577-8)[xii]. While in exile away from society the mental ill still had possession of their madness. They were considered to possess the privilege of “supernatural knowledge” and could refuse to abide to the dominant meta-narratives of their social world.
Under the new 18th century modern medical regime, began a process of alienation that turned the “privilege” of exile into exclusion within society. Forcing the insane to exist only within institutions, eliminated the freedom to exist outside dominant narratives, and separated the insane from their supernatural knowledge, which became inaccessible and alienated within themselves.
Madness became seen as moral error. The mentally ill were viewed as having freely chosen the path of unreason. With this shift came institutional programs of punishment and reward aimed at causing them to reverse that choice. The social forces Foucault sees as driving this confinement include the need for an extrajudicial mechanism for getting rid of undesirables, and facilitating the regulation of unemployment and wages (the cheap labour of the workhouses applied downward pressure on the wages of free labour).
By the 18th century, madness and health became the monopoly of the medical profession who became solely responsible for their definition. The medical profession, having eliminated the voices of traditional healers, became the only social group responsible for establishing and reinforcing the rules of “healthy” behaviors as well as defining consequences for being different or having unhealthy behaviors, bodies and thoughts within social space.
By the end of the eighteenth century, we saw the creation of Asylums devoted solely to the care of the “mad” under the supervision of medical doctors within these new institutions. These hospitals came to be the only places where therapeutic treatment could be administered(Foucault, 2009)[xiii]
Asylums became ‘total institutions’ in which people became all treated alike and their behavior regulated (Goffman, 1961)[xiv]. This institutionalization process socialized the insane into the role of a “good” patient, as someone ‘harmless and inconspicuous’. Any behaviors that deviated from this norm of the “good” patient became equated with illness. This stillness in behaviors forced the ill to exist only within their mind, converting space into an invisible prison, guarded by the social conventions of the medical profession. Inertia became the norm, deviation from acceptable behaviors could lead to serious violent consequences such as lobotomy and electric shock but also chemical treatments that deepened sensorial and spatial anesthesia.
Our race towards perfect rationalism eliminated spatial perception from our dialectics:
“At the moment when a considered politics of spaces was starting to develop, at the end of the eighteenth century, the new achievements in theoretical and experimental physics dislodged philosophy from its ancient right to speak of the world, the cosmos, finite or infinite space. This double investment of space by political technology and scientific practice reduced philosophy to the field of a problematic of time. Since Kant, what is to be thought by the philosopher is time. Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger. Along with this goes a correlative devaluation of space, which stands on the side of understanding, the analytical, the conceptual, the dead, the fixed, the inert.” (Power and knowledge, 149-150, translated by West-pavlov, p. 146)
Equating sensory awareness of space as madness is a significant shift in our culture given that: space is the matrix in which knowledge and identities are produced, but also one of the products, and in turn an agent of production (Foucault, translated by West-pavlov, 153). In this process of institutionalization, our self became reduced to the “no self” we saw in chapter one.
In tandem, the advancement of religious control systems finalized the elimination of “female” principles from our cultural values and as a consequence of the sensorial body as central to defining ourselves.
All dispositions that were feminine, sensorial, emotional and/or natural oriented became associated with mental illness. ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘lewd’ were replaced by terms like ‘mad’ or ‘disordered’. (Leishman and DiDomenico, 2009)[xv]. Religious meta-narratives ostracized women’s knowledge. A powerful form of cultural violence, this exclusion of women from societal imaginaries and western medicine finalized the disconnect between health and the senses.
Prior to modern times, women had:
” always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of western history. They were abortionists, nurses and counsellors. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities.” (Ehrenreich and English, 1979)[xvi]
This transformation of women’s role happened over many centuries, during which the church and its medical profession managed to propagate dialectics that devalued “folk” health practitioners of the times, women. Folk health was based on a personal model of health where each individual was responsible for his/her health and where medicine was used to assist healing. In its place, modern medicine substituted a medicine that controlled and forced the body into behaving differently and in accordance to a norm of bodily and behavioral outcomes set out by the medical establishment. Modern medical remedies began to serve as anesthetics that shut down access to the sensorial body and its perceptions.
The church gradually moved people away from folk health. The domination and eradication over health was not limited to discourse and social exclusion. During the period of 1300 to 1600 CE, the inquisition served to execute many healers and midwives viewed as evil. These witch-hunts were forms of genocide that attempted to destroy the holders of natural knowledge that could not be dominated. The church began to promote male-only medical schools, reducing access to health while creating dependence on the church for medical care.
By eliminating folk health and healing practices, it was the eradication and derogation of ancient traditional forms of knowledge that was achieved. As Leanne Simpson explains regarding North American indigenous women who are struggling to preserve their culture:
“The violence against women and the violence occurring against Mother Earth are also directly connected. Haudenosaunee planting ceremonies acknowledge that the women are the seed – the connection between the Creator and Mother Earth. The loss of connection of Indigenous women to their lands and territories means that the lifeblood and carrier of future generations are also cut off.” (Simpson, 2013)[xvii]
European culture destroyed its indigenous women’s knowledge centuries ago. In Europe, those who seek other ways of living, no longer have access to their ancestral myths, traditions and knowledge. By censoring the natural knowledge held by women, western culture lost any understanding of the senses outside the norms established by the formal medical profession. Sensory sensitivities and other “abnormal” behaviors became understood as madness:
“…modern man no longer communicates with the madman […] There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence”. (Foucault, Preface to the 1961 edition, p.3)[xviii]
Human made, symbolic representations of social rituals, a static, ordered, disciplined and rational image of life replaced the experience of an unpredictable, dynamic, natural and poetic space (Bachelard, 1958)[xix].
Without a need for experience, the body could easily become a symbolic representation. Lacan[xx] argued that symbolic order gives the imaginary a linguistic dimension that imposes structures upon it. While the Imaginary is rooted in the subject’s relationship with his or her own body (the image of the body), language inverts and distorts the discourse of “the Other”. We began to create conceptual frame structures to understand society (Goffman, 1974) instead of relying on our own experiences. These structures function like still picture frames that people use to hold together mental picture of what should be a “perfect” life as frozen in time, instead of fluid and ever changing.
As we replaced sensorial perception with disembodied representations, we began to lose our ability to feel empathy for the living world we inhabit. We anesthetized our senses and began to re-shape space and environments, replacing natural processes with man made ones without any insights into the consequences these actions would have on our lives. The world itself became frozen images wih no dept, no longer an environment that we experienced.
In understanding the world as mere images, we began to despise all that was not controllable. Without empathy for ourselves, we lost the connection between what we needed to be healthy, replacing the sensorial perception necessary to our natural survival with a system of representation that values social and environmental control and erases “difference” through the colonization of space.
This colonization has been simultaneously technological, chemical and representational. Our self-inflicted sensorial blindness left room for the creation of a toxic world that a disembodied mind did not notice nor object to. Without empathy, we began to poison the resources necessary to nourrish our bodies and to maintain a healthy mind, as we will see in chapter 4.
In its pursuit for control and behavioral order, it is the foundational knowledge of life itself that western medical professional destroyed. The way water became despised typifies these destructive tendencies. We are mainly made of water, it is essential to our health and survival. Without water we would die within a few days. Our ancestors built myths and cultural rituals that respected this essential resource. According to Aboriginal women water is not only essential to life, health and healing, it is life itself. Water is sentient and forms relationships, it can heal and is essential to both physical and spiritual life (Anderson, 2010)[xxi].
During the 15th century, water became feared in Europe and considered a threat to health. It became the enemy, to be avoided at all cost (Ashenburg, 2007)[xxii]. The result, is that we are now well underway in destroying the natural resources necessary for us to survive and our “known no self” is stopping us from recognizing the signs of our struggle. We in large are more concerned with controlling behaviors in order to become the sanitized inert images of ourselves necessary for social status ascension than with creating the experiences and actions necessary for our health and well-being.
But this aesthetic system is only one side of a story, Within digital networks some people are reclaiming their bodies and mind and the notion of disability is being redefined in ways that are pushing back against the dominant values of what some anthropologists are now calling an era of trauma (Griselda Pollock, 2013[xxiii]; Bonnie Bright, 2011[xxiv]). Slowly, more people are realizing that the medical system is failing them, often hurting them instead of helping them. Difference and diversity are entering a new media moment, via networks, the public is many are beginning to use networks to broadcast personal narratives that are re-establishing the values within modern forms of folk medicine. As we will explore next.
Difference and Diversity as New Media
One distinction between 20th and 21st century media is the introduction of networks. Networks operate very differently from broadcast media, in part because they are spaces of actions. Visual culture began on a system where the audience was passive, absorbing messages without offering much feedback. Network culture however is founded on a value system of engagement and participation within mediated channels of communication. Over the last few decades, researchers have witnessed and reported on an incredible amount of activities within these spaces. Communities have been established, people experimenting with their identity and culture (Ito, 2008[xxv]; Ito et al, 2008[xxvi]; boyd, 2011[xxvii]) within these mediated spaces.
This evolution of our media has changed the nature of representation. Traditional media rendered possible what Jean Beaudrillard[xxviii] called the precession of simulacra. For Baudrillard our mediated society replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs. He argued that these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality. Simulacra have come to precede the real, they hide that the real as relevant to our understanding of our lives. Simulacra have replaced traditional myths, they are the significations and symbolism of culture that construct perceived reality, the acquired understanding by which our lives and shared existence is and are rendered legible. Baudrillard believed that society has become so saturated with these simulacra and our lives so saturated with the constructs of society that all meaning has been rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable.
But with new media, media has taken on different dimensions, which are altering how simulation affect our lives. Sherry Turkle, in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet[xxix], asserted that the personal computer is inducing changes in our minds. She argued that we are learning to feel comfortable about coexisting and conversing with intelligent machines. We are learning to trust simulations and treat them as sentient beings. And we are learning to accept a new view of our own selves that fits well into a world of pervasive simulation. In this process: “We come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine,”. For Turkle :
“As human beings become increasingly intertwined with the technology and with each other via the technology, old distinctions about what is specifically human and specifically technological become more complex. Are we living life on the screen or in the screen? Our new technologically enmeshed relationships oblige us to ask to what extent we ourselves have become cyborgs, transgressive mixtures of biology, technology, and code. The traditional distance between people and machines has become harder to maintain. The computer is an evocative object that causes old boundaries to be renegotiated.”
This renegotiation of boundaries has not only been with machines, but also with ourselves. We are learning to co-exist with simulated versions of ourselves. People have used these simulation to experiment with new forms of “reality”, which have now began to reinfiltrate physical life.
Through networks, we are developing new metaphors of ourselves. In recent years, I have witnessed mesmerizing new realities made possible by new media co-designs such as the emergent digital lives of people normally marginalized, if not oppressed, by dominant communication infrastructures. Much self-determination has developed in virtual worlds: Paraplegics dancing, people meeting virtually and marrying in real life, autistic children expressing themselves with ease, physically disabled children learning about the body through gaming, communities of people helping each other cope with depression and cancer by creating art and spaces to share experiences, poor communities developing sustainable economies and virtual protesters influencing governments’ decision making. Key to all these activities has been an incredible sense of community where people share experiences, care and help each other in order to enhance their social lives.
In the case of “disability”, mental or otherwise, networks have also become learning commons. Many bloggers now openly question the medical established norms and the use of drugs to regulate “deviant” behaviors. For instance, the blog beyondmeds.com shares thoughts, ideas and positive experiences of dealing with mental illness, eliminating psych drugs from one’s life. The blog discusses how to approach healing instead of numbing the mind with drug use. Blogs of this type allow people to witness other realities and aesthetics then those of our cultural institutions. People can now do their own research, find communities where they can question and find answers, witness other people’s experiences.
“Difference” does not exist in these digital spaces but via the redefinition of the self, some can regain access to sensory life and potentially eventually being able to gage difference as we will see in chapter 10. The massification of new media is reintroducing on a large scale, the notion of personalized norms and values. Via the Internet, Mobile phones and digital media, some people are finding or redefining their own voice. In parallel, science is also experiencing a paradigm shift where the demonstrated individuality of our genes, neural systems and cells is challenging many of the medical beliefs of the last few centuries.
Digital technologies have allowed a renewed awareness of diversity to infiltrate our society. Via the discourse of new actors, such as amputee turned pop culture icon Aimee Mullins, alternate societal meta-narratives and imaginaries that re-define “difference” as a strength and potential for new ways of being, have emerged. One to this dialectics is appearing via the figure of the “Super-Abled human”.
This passage from one of her Ted Talks exemplifies that point:
“ (…) the conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It’s a conversation about augmentation. It’s a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space. So people that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment. And what is exciting to me so much right now is that by combining cutting-edge technology — robotics, bionics — with the age-old poetry, we are moving closer to understanding our collective humanity. I think that if we want to discover the full potential in our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities that we all have. I think of Shakespeare’s Shylock: “If you prick us, do we not bleed, and if you tickle us, do we not laugh?” It is our humanity, and all the potential within it, that makes us beautiful.” (Mullins, 2008[xxx])
The values of empowerment and freedom to recreate our selves do not remain solely in the realm of mediated discourse. The advent of 3d printing has facilitated drastic changes in how objects are manufactured. Objects that once needed to be design for expensive production processes can now be created at home on a computer attached to a 3d printer. The significance of this technological shift is as important as the birth of the Internet and, later, that of social media has been for our societies. It allows the public to integrate within their physical realities the ethos of the diy and peer-to-peer movements.
Designers and researchers have now noticed that objects all have a bias implied in their design, which often isolates individuals from other potential aspects of social life. Institutional aesthetics such as those of the medical community or other “expert” communities often disregard the experience (sensorial, social, mental and/or physical) that these objects create in their users. Within a new media perspective, user experience has to become key, which implies a co-design approach that involves the user community as much as the “expert” in the creation of artifacts.
Already, it has facilitated the integration of alternate design paradigms in industrial design work. For instance, Industrial designer Scott Summit during his Ted Talk “beautiful limbs” explained how with the advent of 3d printing, his industrial design practice has moved from the design of products for mass consumption to the individually designed prosthetic legs that are unabashedly artificial and completely personal. He abides to a design philosophy that echoes Aimee Mullein’s discourse: “If you are designing for the person, you don’t settle for the minimum functional requirement, you see how far beyond that you can go. (..) If you can nail that, you stand to improve the quality of life for somebody for every moment, for the rest of their life.”[xxxi] This lead him and his team to design limbs that become extensions of peoples’ aesthetics, their values, their fashion and their activities, each piece potentially becoming a work of art.
Alternate systems of aesthetics are stabilizing within our society that are re-establishing “difference” as normal instead of as pathology. In the art realm, artists with “disabilities” have disseminated works that embrace their differences. Hello, Savants! is an example of a collective of such creative people who for, about a decade, have shown and shared their experiences internationally by creating experiential commercial work and personal projects. Focused on the needs and culture of people with a “super-ability”.
It is clear that cultural “difference”, “diversity” and “disability” are being celebrated both in the industrial and public making cultures and many are rising to the challenge of redefining their selves and the norms our society have used to define/label them. In as such, these notions are going through a new media moment, people re-inventing alternative aesthetic values and forms of discourse related to what it means to be human. And while physical abilities are well on their way to be considered differences instead of pathology, the human mind and its differences are now at the forefront of redefinition.
Cognitive Difference as a New Media
We have reached the end of an evolutionary cycle, and another one is beginning. Difference is again acceptable, and our society is also beginning to re-understand difference inherent in space as essential to “being”. Our scientists know that we live in a conscious world and that fluid relationships to the environment (space, time and nature) are crucial in identity formation. These realization are coming in part from new discoveries on how the mind functions and is changing the world of mental illness and disabilities.
The modern medical community tends to pathologies children’s behaviors that do not fit the norm. For instance, terms such as Autism, ADHD & Learning Disabilities are broad-spectrum classification to label often “non understood” behaviors in children—from “unknown”causes. What is however known is that these children process the world differently.
The world of psychiatry and psychology has evolved in the last few decades to incorporate new values and notions of how the mind and attention functions that are leading some to understand the behaviors associated with these labels as something other than pathologies. In parallel, an informal yet expert community has formed within digital networks, those with or parents of those with cognitive “differences” who are sharing their experiences and developing sub-cultures based on their own research and in the process developing new societal narratives which echo their lived and sensorial lives instead of the main mass mediated culture of normality and difference as “madness” or monstrous.
Cognitive “differences” are beginning to go through a new media re-articulation. For some this re-definition revolves around the idea that our current mainstream culture is a pathology that is oppressing those who happen to think, feel, and/or sense differently. However, we know that certain other cultures tell stories about humankind’s partnership with the living world, and foster and embodied sensitivity to it.” (Sheperd, 2010, p.3)[xxxii] In digital networks, these alternate, often ancient, stories are being incorporated in new narratives that celebrate instead of pathologize these differences.
For instance, blogger Jason Huxley part of the autistic subculture writes:
“Enculturated humans are guided by beliefs, values, traditions, ideologies, laws, and social conventions, most of all the social convention of “humanity.” Humanity is a cultural entity separate from Nature, divorced from its inner nature. The external arrangement we call culture is presumed, without ever thinking about it, to be progress. But what if the reality is that it’s a pathology?
This may be another reason that autists are “failing to communicate” — less as the result of any deficiency than because they are simply not being heard. Part of the pathology of culture is that it cannot conceive of any alternatives to itself. There are many kinds of perceptual narrowing, and expectation bias is one of them. Neurotypical humans are heavily invested in maintaining a belief in their culture and in the validity of their perceptions and beliefs. “[xxxiii]
Ken Robinson articulates the current folk backlash against the medical establishment while discussing on Youtube the use of drugs administered to ADHD labeled children:
“These kids are being medicated as routinely as we had our tonsils taken out and on the same whimsical basis and for the same reasons: medical fashion. Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth. They are being besieged with information and coursed their attention from every platform, from computers, from iphones, from advertisement hoardings, from 100 of television channels. We are penalizing them for getting distracted. From what? Boring stuff, at school for the most part. “(Robinson, 2010)[xxxiv]
Before we can examine the shift in value that these emerging dialectics offer us, lets take a look at some of the thinking taking places on the fringes of modern medicine in terms of what the mind represents and how attention is formulated.
The mind: a malleable, dynamic, adaptable system
According to Dan Siegel: “The mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information with self-organizing properties”. (Siegel, 2012)[xxxv].
On the side of embodied processes scientists are beginning to realize that there is a strong relationship between food and emotions, which influence behavior and I will argue also attention. Dr Hilary Jones wrote in the article: “ Your food influences your mood: The second brain residing in our stomachs”[xxxvi], that many of us don’t realize just how much the foods we eat can impact on our mood and mental wellbeing. In a recent paper published in the journal of Nutrition and Food Science[xxxvii], over 81% of patients reported a significant improvement in mood and mental wellbeing as a direct consequence of applying the dietary changes recommended.
Why is this? Emma Young in the article “Gut instincts: The secrets of your second brain”[xxxviii] explains that embedded in the wall of the gut, is the enteric nervous system (ENS), which plays an important role in our physical and mental well-being. It can work both independently of and in conjunction with the brain in our head. The ENS helps us sense environmental threats, and then influences our response without us noticing. “A lot of the information that the gut sends to the brain affects well-being, and doesn’t even come to consciousness,” says Michael Gershon at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, New York.
Scientists now know that the ENS influences the brain. In fact, about 90 per cent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from above, but from the ENS (American Journal of Physiology – Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, vol 283, p G1217). Emma Young also reports that this second brain shares many features with the first. It is made up of various types of neuron, with glial support cells. It has its own version of a blood-brain barrier to keep its physiological environment stable. And it produces a wide range of hormones and around 40 neurotransmitters of the same classes as those found in the brain. In fact, neurons in the gut are thought to generate as much dopamine as those in the head. Intriguingly, about 95 per cent of the serotonin present in the body at any time is in the ENS.
On the side of social experiences, some researchers have discovered the mirror neuron, a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.(Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004)[xxxix]. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.
Some neuroscience research suggests that these neurons facilitate the work of the “empathic brain”, proposing that humans possess a deeply interconnected, social mind as mirror systems may simulate observed actions, and thus contribute to theory of mind skills (Keyser, 2011)[xl]. Others argue that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy. (Blakeslee, 2006)[xli]. While much more research in this area is needed, these findings are very important as these systems may hold some part of the answer in terms of “learning disabilities” and/or autism. Already, some neuroscientist have proposed that the mirror neuron system may underlie cognitive disorders, particularly autism. (Overman & al, 2006). Other research is suggesting that making direct eye contact with someone gives a feeling of special connection because of “eye cells neurons” in the Amygdala, that process emotions and social interactions (Gothard, 2012)[xlii].
A genetic connection
These advancements in neuroscience suggest that we are wired to sense the world around us chemically and emotionally. But the mind is not the only part of us that pays attention to its environment(s). Geneticist Suzanne Clancy (2008)[xliii] explains that DNA protein production is regulated in part by RNA elements, called riboswitches (or RNA switches). These riboswitches are RNA sensors that detect and respond to environmental or metabolic cues and affect gene expression accordingly. According to research Ingrid Lobo:
“The expression of genes in an organism can be influenced by the environment, including the external world in which the organism is located or develops, as well as the organism’s internal world, which includes such factors as its hormones and metabolism. One major internal environmental influence that affects gene expression is gender, as is the case with sex-influenced and sex-limited traits. Similarly, drugs, chemicals, temperature, and light are among the external environmental factors that can determine which genes are turned on and off, thereby influencing the way an organism develops and functions.” (Lobo, 2008)[xliv]
Not only does our brain and genes sense the environment, they also adapt based on what is being paid attention to. According to scientist Jill U. Adams, (2008):
“Traits that appear or disappear over time are not the result of newly mutated genes encoding defective versions of the proteins associated with teeth or tails, nor are they caused by a loss of existing genes. Instead, a growing body of experimental evidence has shown such traits reflect changes in how, where, and when these genes are expressed.”[xlv]
We produce new proteins based on our experiences that can change our genes. From neuroscience, we also know we can grown new neurons based on our experiences. These thread of research suggest that our minds and bodies are highly adaptable and susceptible to their chemical and social environments.
Key to this premise is that our brain pays attention, the mind is not just a regulator of consciousness and subjective thoughts, it also regulates embodied and social experiences. Such a definition opens the door for elements such as the environment, people and energy to have an influence on how we think and perceive the world. Dan Siegel created the notion of “Mind Sight” to identify our human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others.
Another interesting point is that: “The brain changes by driving information flow through its circuits in something called attention. “ (Siegel, 2012). And attention is often considered key to learning disabilities. Thus the need to examine what attention actually is.
Narrow and Broad Attention: Valuing Different Realities.
The differences between the two hemispheres of the brain give birth to different types of attention that humans use to make sense of their world. According to psychiatrist McGHilschrist the brain houses two types of distinct attention:
“The right hemisphere is seemingly responsible for sustained, broad, open, vigilant and alert type of attention while the left hemisphere is used for narrow sharply focused attention to detail. We need both of these types of attention to exist in the world. (…)
With our left hemisphere we are able to make tools, to grasp thing, to learn new languages we need details. To do so we need a simplified version of reality, it works with a map that represents the world but is much simpler. While the right hemisphere is on the look out for things that may be different from our expectations, it sees things in context, it understand implicit meaning, metaphor, body language, emotional expression in the face, it deals with an embodied world in which we stand embodied in relation to a world that is concrete, it understand individual not just categories, it has a disposition for the living not just the mechanical.
The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are the know, fixed, static, isolated, de-contextualized, explicit, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, incarnate, living beings embodied within the context of the lived world. But in the nature of never fully graspable, never perfectly known.”[xlvi]
The division of the brain into two hemispheres makes possible incompatible versions of the world with quite different priorities and values. Interestingly their differences start with the sensory input used to make sense of the world which in turn are reflected in very different learning and cognitive abilities.
If the two hemispheres seem to influence our value systems, other systems in the brain play a crucial role in how we behave. Children, like adults, respond to sensory input using three branches of the nervous system: The Central Nervous System consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The Peripheral Nervous System is a group of nerves looping messages from the body to the brain and back again. And the last branch is the Autonomic Nervous System that controls out-of-awareness body functions. (Laney, 2005)[xlvii]. Depending on a child’s dominant temperamental tendencies, the parasympathetic or sympathetic system will be triggered.
These two systems differ drastically on how they process sensory input. Still according to Laney depending on temperament:
“ … the brain can either collect sensory data that flows in from the outside world and transform this data into perceptions by selecting, encoding and comparing the new data to old feelings and memories. These actions are involuntary automatic reactions, based on quickly developed perceptions initiated from the back of the brain. Or, the brain kicks the new perception to the front brain, the most evolved part of the brain and the most complex part of the brain (..) [that] reflects and plans. Patterns are created, reflected on, balanced, and verified before, during, and after action. This affords the ability to anticipate, or project oneself into the future, and reflect on what has already happen.”
The front and back of the brain work in conjunction with the right and left sides of the brain to form what we are. Normally, the two hemispheres should be working in a unified manner. Of course none of us are all of one type. Each individual exists on a spectrum, which marries right/left hemisphere and front/back lobes dominant tendencies. Lancey gives a sense of what some of these tendencies may look like behavior wise:
“every child will be dominant in one of the hemispheres. If your innie is more left-brained she may be logical and serious; she may find words easily, have more energy, be more judgmental, and she may not have many social skills. A right brain innie may be more playful, have better developed social skills and artistic talents, but may have trouble speaking confidently, and often have the experience of feeling flooded and overwhelmed”
A healthy mental life means creating equilibrium between all these parts to insure we move out of our comfort zones and grow. But our world has gradually promoted serious imbalances, promoting the domination of left hemispheres values and ways of understanding the world and turning many of the skills and abilities related to broad attention into pathologies: defining as healthy the ways of extroverts temperaments and ill those of introverts; considering visual perceptions as normal and experience as illness; defining the self as a disciplined ordered image or mad chaotic spatial senses.
In his book “Overcoming ADHD. Helping Children Become Calm, Engaged and Focused- Without a pill”[xlviii], M.D. Stanley I. Greenspan considers that attention is a learned process with many components. He and his colleagues who work with children prefer to think about attention as a dynamic, active process involving many parts of the nervous system at the same time:
“ Attention involves taking in sights and sounds; it involves processing information; it involves planning and executing actions” (Greenspan, 2009, p.5)
Attention is based in bodily activities and the senses. These activities are the domain of the right brain. According to Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in their book “ the whole-brain child”[xlix], the right brain regulates and reacts to emotional and bodily input.
Highly sensitive children are much more sensitive to emotional, environmental input, in other words their senses are predominant. Hyperactive behaviors shift could be the sign that a strong or extra emotional or sensory input is affecting a child who, not knowing how to regulate this input, acts out or gets distracted.
If we are to become healthy we need to begin to re-understand our participatory sensory communication system. Such a process promises to be difficult given that, to many, sensory sensitivity or being “different” have become analogous to bad and/or madness. But if we do not change, we will continue to not see these imbalances and consider their symptoms as “disabilities” which now plague our children. Notions we will explore in the next chapter.
Arthur Aron, Sarah Ketay, Trey Hedden, Elaine N. Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D. E. Gabrieli (2010). Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response in Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience. 2010 Jun-Sep; 5(2-3): 219–226. Published online 2010 April 13.