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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

question of the weekend: Do you ever wonder if you’re sensory deprived?

petting a cat

Diane Ackerman in The New York Times recently made me think about something that hadn’t occurred to me before: Does living in the modern world mean I’m suffering from a bit of sensory deprivation? We’re used to the notion that we’re all trying to cope with sensory overload, what with screens blaring at us from every angle all day with a nonstop barrage of information, more to digest in a single day than our ancestors, perhaps, didn’t face over their entire lives. But could it be the opposite? Could we be sensory deprived? Ackerman:

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.

But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature.

I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. As people complain more and more these days, attention spans are growing shorter, and we’ve begun living in attention blinks. More social than ever before, we’re spending less time alone with our thoughts, and even less relating to other animals and nature. Too often we’re missing in action, brain busy, working or playing indoors, while completely unaware of the world around us.

One solution is to spend a few minutes every day just paying close attention to some facet of nature. A bonus is that the process will be refreshing. When a sense of presence steals up the bones, one enters a mental state where needling worries soften, careers slow their cantering, and the imaginary line between us and the rest of nature dissolves. Then for whole moments one may see nothing but the flaky trunk of a paper-birch tree with its papyrus-like bark. Or, indoors, watch how a vase full of tulips, whose genes have traveled eons and silk roads, arch their spumoni-colored ruffles and nod gently by an open window.

I didn’t see myself in this at first. I seem to have a natural rapport with animals — cats and dogs almost always like me, and I make a point of saying hello to dogs I encounter when I’m out and about, if doing so doesn’t seem weird or inappropriate. So I’m communing on a regular basis with nonhuman creatures. I almost instinctively look up at the night sky on clear evenings, because I love looking at the stars, and I can recognize some constellations and planets (though nowhere near as many as some). And I’ve been surprised when I’ve been with friends who don’t know that that bright red unblinking star is Mars, and that isn’t a helicopter, it’s Venus. Those who didn’t know this usually seem delighted to learn it, but I don’t understand how anyone could have avoided knowing these things. Even in big, bright, light-polluted cities, Mars and Venus stand out in the sky, as do constellations such as Orion and the Big Dipper. Do some people just never look up?

Even so, I have no doubt that my life is far less connected to nature than the lives of my ancestors would have been. That’s been replaced by things I wouldn’t want to lose — I like knowing lots of things and I would hate to live in a world that was information deprived — and yet…

Do you ever wonder if you’re sensory deprived?

Do you feel a loss of communing with nature or with the natural world? If you have pets, do you feel that caring for them gives you a connection to the natural world that you would otherwise miss? Do you make conscious decisions to reconnect with the world outside your home and your cyber life?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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