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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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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  • Isobel_A

    I get sick of the lack of sky, sometimes.  Going in and out of London everyday leaves me a bit green and sky deprived – so I go to Woldingham and have a walk on the downs.  Green and sky and a feeling that you can suddenly breathe more deeply (I am a country bumpkin at heart).

    I’m also shocked at how little you can see of the stars near a city. Whenever I go to my Mum’s in Scotland it’s ridiculous how much more you can see. I don’t recognise many constellations beyond Orion, Ursa Major (the Big Dipper to the US) and Cassiopeia, but I do like looking at them.

    I’m also constantly surprised by how little people know about the natural world.  People who can’t tell an oak from a beech from a horse chestnut, or recognise a thrush.

    On a day to day basis, though, I think I do OK with communing with the fur people.  I have the cuddliest pair of cat beasts on the face of planet and every evening involves purring and tummy rubbing in large quantities.

  • LaSargenta

    I’d agree in general about her perspective; but, for me, I pretty connected to nature. I love pointing out to people plants growing in a sidewalk. I use herbs for medicine (aside from my whole CSA membership–which keeps me connected to the harvest cycles) and can recognize quite a few of them. And nature is really powerful. Those little weeds in a crack in the paving are busy destroying it. Makes me smile.

    What I miss more is wilderness. I deal fine w/ technology. I can repair or bild quite a bit of it, too. I’m fluent in Modern. But, when I saw Dersu Uzala way back before it won Best Foreign Picture, I was sobbing for Dersu’s loss. I already was alternating between a big city and going to Boundary Waters or the Quetico with my father, canoeing (!) on Lake Superior — for which you have to use a special, large, stable canoe. It’s the same lake that swollowed the Edmund Fitzgerald. There’s very little wilderness left and there’s no place without planes in the sky.

  • bronxbee

    i feel pretty connected to nature and the seasons… there are trees outside my window, and i watch everyone’s flowers bloom at certain times… i grow herbs on my window boxes and  i look at the cemetery and parks around us.  i always look up at the sky and love to watch sunsets.  but i wouldn’t want to live in the country — everytime i visit my parents i spend hours looking up at their unpolluted sky, but also fighting bugs and getting bit by whatever giant mutant bugs live there as well.  i also love sitting outside, but don’t like having bugs in my tea, watching snakes and snapping turtles slither into their goldfish pond, or having ants in the peonies… i can’t say i feel deprived of nature, but spending anytime in a place without public transportation makes me feel deprived in other ways.  i’m too social for long periods of solitude, but i like my own company and have to find alone time every day.  i don’t know if i’ll ever find the perfect balance…

  • Not only does technology tend to distance us from an immediate experience of nature, it tends to distance us from what’s right in front of our noses in everyday life. My daughter just had her fifth grade musical and her graduation exercises, and what saddens me is that, in order to record these events for posterity, I had to look at the damn screen on my camcorder instead of looking directly at my daughter standing a few feet away from me. I couldn’t even applaud properly, with just one free hand! I resented feeling a few degrees removed from the moment unfolding right in front of me, even as technology was allowing me to capture it so that our relatives in distant places could share the experience. So, yes, the screens and gizmos in our lives are a double-edged sword, I think.

  • Ha! I’ve been lamenting this for YEARS. I am a Horticulturalist and a Landscaper. I spend my days figuring out how to make other peoples property more beautiful, and my nights and weekends making my own property more beautiful. I do nothing BUT commune with nature. Well, outside of the usual distractions. Heck, I’ve spent the last 13 years doing my darndest to replicate  all those beautiful English cottage gardens. Naturally, I know my plants and trees very well(Paper Birches are stunning, BTW), and my knowledge and appreciation of the insect world has grown with them. I love watching spiders make their webs, or bumblebees buzz from flower to flower.
    In other words,  I am FAR from deprived in this matter. It saddens me, though, how many seem to be. So many people do nothing but stare at their phones all day long. It’s so sad.
    This is not to say that I am not connected to the modern world. I rather like my iphone(work gave it to me. I would not have bought it myself), and use it more than I thought I would. Still, if I find myself messing with it a bit longer than I thought I would I start to feel guilty of wasting my time.
    Personally, I don’t see pets as being the answer to being sensory deprived. Especially if all you do is play with your phone while stroking the cat. Same with dogs. Unless you get out and take the dog for walks/hikes it’s not really pulling you away from the grid.
    Like with most things, it’s all about balance. Enjoy modern technology for making our lives easier, and information more accessible then ever. Just make sure to put it down for a bit, and go for a walk(YES, WITHOUT YOUR PHONE). Look at the trees. Feel the leaves and the bark. Look up at the sky and marvel at the amazing scale of the universe. Basically, just slow down and appreciate how lucky we all are to simply be here, at this time, at this place. It’s incredible when you really think about. Don’t waste it.

  • LaSargenta

    Ya know, that peony-ant thing…I suspect there’s some yet-to-be-understood symbiosis. I’ve never seen peonies w/o ants. And the peonies seem to thrive!

  •  The ants are feeding on the natural sugars that come out as the buds emerge. They do not harm the Peonies at all.

  • Isobel_A

    I don’t see pets as being the answer to being sensory deprived. Especially if all you do is play with your phone while stroking the cat.

    I find that the cats stop me from sitting and playing with phones/computers.  Smokey likes to come and sit directly in front of the computer and purr at me, so I stop doing what I was doing and give the cat some attention.  Or Tigger drags his favourite toy (a pipecleaner attached to elastic attached to a handle – he’s very possessive about it) over and labouriously drags it up onto the desk or sofa, and laughing at him dragging it around under him like a lion on the Serengeti brings me back from computerland to the real world, and I’ll go and play with him for a while.

    They bring me out of technology for small moments all the time, without having to go and feel bark and look at leaves, which I’m more than happy to do on sunny Saturday afternoons, or after work in the summer – or during work in the summer, I go for a walk around St. James’s Park every day (or did before they closed it ages ago for Olympic stuff) – less inclined to do that sort of thing when it’s a dark and rainy English winter, though.

    Animals in the house give me that little slow down moment all the time.

  • I’m right with you there on the whole sky thing. It’s absolutely necessary. Also stars. And, if at all possible, birdsong.

  • Anne-Kari

    Growing up in the heart of NYC, my childhood relationship with nature and all things wild was dichotomous.  On one hand, I lived in an apartment, we played in the building hallways and when our parents were able to, we were taken the the concrete playgrounds in the park.  My understanding of the sky was framed by tall buildings.

    But every summer, for weeks at at time we camped in the Catskill mountains.  And when I say camped, I don’t mean on a campground with communal buildings that had bathrooms and showers and the like.  I mean packing the car with coolers full of food and ice and driving up a dirt road until it ended, then pitching the tent and digging out a firepit.  And we lived on that campsite for at least a month every single summer, me and my two brothers and my mother.  My dad would take the car back to the city every Monday morning at the crack of dawn, work all week, and drive back up on Friday with fresh supplies.

    We slept under the stars when the weather permitted, we cooked out over an open fire or the Coleman stove, we swam in the pond and took our nature guidebooks out into the forest and the fields to try to identify as many different plants and birds as possible.  This was the 1970s, so no internet, no cell phones, no portable dvd players, and the transistor radio was out of range of most stations.   And if it rained – which it did for days on end occasionally – we stayed in the tent (which leaked) and read.   And read and read and read.

    You’d think that those incredible summers would have shaped my adulthood more than they have.  And living in the greater DC area suburbs has more nature within in walking distance than you might think.  But I’m at heart a city girl, and I haven’t been camping in years and years.  Still, weather permitting (in other words, winter), I love love love walking or hiking outside.  I love the quiet, I love the sky, I love being surprised by the enormous variety of wildlife living so near to such a developed area.

    And now, having two kids who have equal love for video games AND exploring the local creek and surrounding woods, I feel that this odd dichotomy is a reasonable balance, all things considered.

  • LaSargenta

    Thanks! I’ve been wondering what the attraction was.

  • But I suppose if you’re a cat person you might not get to hear much birdsong in your garden!

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Meh. I went outside once.

    The graphics sucked.

  • This is one of the things that frustrates me most being in Japan, because this seems to be the approach to life. It isn’t real unless it has been recorded… which means that nothing is experienced directly.

    My wife occasionally upbraids me about our ‘lack’ of photos and videos. Actually, we have tons of them, that we never look at. But the ‘lack’ derives from my preference for actually looking and experiencing at first hand.

  • Isobel_A

    Indoor cats – best of both worlds!  Cats not killed on the road, birds not killed in the garden.  

    Re: the sky thing.  This is going to sound ridiculous, but it’s like having the horizon hemmed in by buildings all the time starts hemming in my thinking patterns.  Getting out to a big horizon, where you can see all around you 360 degrees, somehow helps open up my thoughts again.  It’s like my brain gets to take a deep breath.

  • must read

  • jeane rauiz

    Sometimes I do feel like I loose my touch with nature, I guess because since it is there all of my life, I tend to take it for granted at times. But I just want to take this moment to say that I do appreciate nature. basenji dog

  • jeane rauiz

    Sometimes I do feel like I loose my touch with nature, I guess because since it is there all of my life, I tend to take it for granted at times. But I just want to take this moment to say that I do appreciate nature. basenji dog

  • jeane rauiz

    Sometimes I do feel like I loose my touch with nature, I guess because since it is there all of my life, I tend to take it for granted at times. But I just want to take this moment to say that I do appreciate nature.

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