Jill Bolte Taylor and the Stroke

Jill Bolte Taylor’s Ted Talk video is inspiring and illuminating. It reminds me of a book written by Dr. Eben Alexander, a brain surgeon who falls quite suddenly ill with meningitis and ends up in a coma. Both of these extraordinary people are  fortunate to be alive, but offer a rare and extremely valuable insiders take on a stroke and a coma, being in the unique position to understand exactly what it is that is happening to their bodies, and minds.

Bolte Taylor’s recount of that fateful morning is presented in a very accessible way given her obviously extensive knowledge of the subject and process. She explains step-by-step her symptoms and thoughts as she endured a severe stroke. She expresses experiencing the logical part of her brain shutting down, to the point where she can no longer discern shapes, or her own body. At one point she falls against the bathroom wall and is unable to tell her own arm from it. Her perception of the world around her continues to evolve until she is experiencing things only as masses of energy. While this presents an image that is disorienting and somewhat terrifying, Bolte Taylor becomes emotional as she recounts that it was an incredibly moving and energizing experience. She speaks as though she is fortunate to have experienced the world in this way, because it gave her a completely new way to understand her world.

This video and experience speak also to cultural norms and constructs. While our own personal and cultural approaches to our surroundings are less extreme in variation, it holds true that no two individuals will see something in exactly the same way, or know something in the same manner. While we may not be able to access the part of our brain that took over for Bolte Taylor in the throes of a stroke, we can make a conscious decision to periodically take a fresh approach to things, to look at them in a new light, from a new perspective.

There also seems to be a somewhat spiritual component to Jill Bolte Taylors experience and presentation. She is clearly emotional and speaks of feeling immense love and peace in her energy-sensing state. While it is easy to dismiss things that seem other-worldly or illogical in the face of Science (which Jill specializes in), perhaps this video serves too as encouragement to keep an open mind, not to be so quick to dismiss things that fall beyond our current sensory spectrum.

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Emily Martin and the Gender of Biology

Emily Martins article on the gender dynamics of Science textbooks is as fascinating as it is terrifying. It sheds light on the immense influence that cultural norms and constructs have on everything we do – with perceived gender roles reaching as far as our understanding of our own biology, and the understanding of generations to come. It serves as a reminder to think critically about everything we are taught and told.

I remember a period of my own revelation and reflection when studies in high school took a turn for the theoretical. As a student in elementary school you are taught things that are. Two plus two is four, there are twelve months in a year, this is how Canadian Parliament works, we construct essays in this format. It was in a Philosophy class in grade 11 that I first realized I was studying peoples ideas. The construction of the class meant that each period one of my classmates presented for ten minutes about the theories and works of a particular philosopher. I scribbled my notes, struggling to wrap my mind around all of their concepts. I had never before questioned or challenged anything I had been taught in school. I took the facts at face value, to be the things that I needed to know. It took me a while to process this shift in learning, and to develop a critical mind.

While the excerpts Martin presents from Science textbooks are truly, amusingly exaggerated in their leading descriptions of male and female processes, I do think this has some merit. While it does give the parts and processes agency and power that they do not possess, it does act as a sort of relatable analogy for understanding what are otherwise very medical and theoretical processes. The negative projections of ‘decaying’ versus ‘producing’ are unnecessary and offensive, but I do think that assigning personifying qualities can be helpful in understanding what is happening.

Science textbooks aside, this article is invaluable as a reflection on the volume of motives, opinions, and perspectives that are present in everything we know, or think we know. Intentional or not, raised by ourselves, those who taught us, or those who taught those who taught us, everything we interpret is tainted.

There is undeniable value in interpreting things for ourselves, in using our own senses to learn about things. We must remember too, however that no one is immune to cultural dogma, and that we carry our own set of expectations, associations.

Laura U. Marks – Haptic Visuality

I first came across the concept of Haptic Visuallity in my first year at Concordia. My major at that time was Art History, and the term was used in reference to a video artwork that featured a naked woman and her boyfriend, as well as her cat. It was filmed in a gritty way that chopped up her body as well as her nudity, and this, according to critics of the film as well as my prof at the time, is what made it artistic instead of pornographic. Close-ups of her skin and shots that panned across her body made it seem more tactile than visual. The denial of an entire shape or object makes it difficult to interpret visually, and so your mind understands what it’s seeing in a sort of sense purgatory, trying to make sense of it in any way it can. Moments when haptic visuality takes over, where you can’t quite decipher what you’re seeing remind me of reading a book, when you reach a section where something exciting is happening and you are struggling not to get ahead of yourself, nearly skimming over sentences in search of the punchline or the pivotal moment. That moment is the revelation of the image, visually. And only after that discovery do you go back and appreciate those sentences, or those haptic scenes.

Marks article extrapolates the idea of visuality into haptic criticism. I’m not entirely clear on the real application of this. While it is an interesting and a plausible concept as a way to make art and experience the world, I struggle with the reach or benefits of ‘haptic criticism’. She asserts that haptic criticism involves a two-way interaction, that the object seen also sees and relates back to our gaze, much like an early article we read on the Yolmo people. She also indicates that she believes optic visuality, while imperative, is only half of seeing, and I would agree with this. Her method and endorsement of haptic visuality certainly lends a different and valuable way of visually relating to things, and offers obvious value to our course of study. It involves not another sense, but an additional way of using and understanding one of our existing senses. Finally, her description of haptic visuality as almost becoming one with the object seen, as blurring the lines between objects and not peering at an object that is distinct reminded me of the TED talk we watched in class about the woman who suffered a stroke and lost her ability to discern her own arm from her bathroom wall. Mark’s approach provides a slightly safer method of harnessing our own sensory functions in order to challenge how we understand and interact with the world. 

Sound, Schwartz and Helmreich

Helmreich’s article recounts his experience in submerging in the ocean in a small sphere with a group of graduate students studying life underwater. He aims to take a different approach to his anthropological fieldwork by focusing on how only one of his senses is engaged in this experience – in this case sound, and his sense of hearing. Helmreich says that sounds like the blip of the sonar and the muffled music playing in the submarine add to his sense of submersion and enrich his experience with the students. One comment made more in passing than as a real point was the distinction between hearing something and listening to something. For me this was the most interesting part of the article. It reminded me of the distinction the Yolmo made in our first reading between passively seeing something, and looking at something with inquiry or intention. And while I had never given it much thought before, there certainly is a difference between hearing something and listening to something. It is the difference between the music playing in the background at a restaurant, and devouring your favourite bands new album. The difference between a vague awareness of the announcement of your subway stop, and the announcement of the new President of the United States.

I really enjoyed Schwartz’s article. I like the idea of the symbolism of sounds, and what we gather from and associate with what we hear. For example, at the slightest clink of a metal dish, my dogs know that it’s dinner time. The jingle of bells means Christmas, Soccer on the TV means a Saturday morning at my house. I really enjoyed the exploration of good versus bad sound. I hadn’t considered the distinction of what is pleasant or ambient, and what is considered distuptive, excessive or irritating, although each person inevitably makes their own evaulations of this on a daily basis. The regulation of sound is also a fascinating topic which could undoubtedly compose an entire essay on its own. Noise complaints and sound pollution compose incredibly complex issues – who has the right to make noise? Who has the right to restrict it? The idea of the value of silence is incredibly complex also. For some, silence is scary and empty and undesirable. For others silence is peaceful and relaxing and stable. Schwartz talks a lot about noise and silence within a religious context, too. I wondered if a silent, meditation session is worth more than a loud, congregation-wide song of praise. As with anything, the value of noise and silence and the perceived beauty or disturbance of a noise will vary from person to person and from ear to ear. However, I found Schwartz’s article an inspiring, exciting way to look at sounds and what they mean.

Rocks, walks, the Breath of God and Sensory Museums

  The first reading is set in the context of ethnography as compiled by Geurts from her studies in South Ghana in the early nineties. Geurts introduces ‘seselelame’, which the local people use to explain a feeling that one has inside their body, translated as ‘feel feel at flesh inside’. Geurts compares this sense and way of understanding to a Western construction of the senses, where one neatly organizes their interpretations of the world into one of five senses and its corresponding organ. She also touches on the differentiation of ‘feeling’ versus ‘sensation’, and how they are experienced with varying reliability and medium. In this case a sensation is a physical interaction, where something makes contact with ones body and causes a reaction. It comes from an outside source. A feeling is a knowing, desire or understanding that comes from within a person, and may not be attributed to a sense, or a single sense. The most interesting point made, I thought, was the consideration of a persons predispositions to feelings and sensations. It could be as miniscule as an aversion to a type of cuisine that is known to be an acquired taste or displeasing, and as large as, in the context of anthropology, the tendency to ‘feel’ with our external, and our ‘senses’, as opposed to our internal, and our intuitions based on our own cultural context and upbringing. The article clearly endorses the use or at least consideration of additional ways of feeling, and the depth it can bring to our understanding of our surroundings and our interactions with them.

  Classens’ article, ‘The Breath of God’, discussed the importance of smell, pre-enlightenment. It related several short examples of historical tales involving people, mostly religious leaders or highly religious figures, exuding pleasant smells upon death or illness. The smells, described as resembling fields of flowers or spices, were attributed to God as representing paradise or bringing comfort to those in need. I was reminded throughout the reading of a concept we touched on in class about the condemnation of sight, as a sense, by the Church. It occurs to me that the Church would devalue sight because it cannot be used to confirm the presence of a god or instill faith. Perhaps smell was privileged during this highly religious period in Western history because, as Classens article explains, it was tied to God. Although fascinating and readable, I thought the examples more closely resembled Sunday School stories than academic work, and found them disturbing.

  ‘Sensory Museums’ by Classen and Howes clearly relates to our current class assignment. It discusses the modern museum and the display of objects based solely on their visual makeup and impact. The article explains the transition within Western culture from the preference of touch as a sense, to sight. It reminisces the museums of old which allowed guests to pick up and feel objects on display, including records from historical museum visits which describe the tactile interaction with objects as adding much to a museum experience and even completely changing one’s understanding of or relationship with a display. Fundamentally I agree that much can be gained with the freedom to interact with an object using all of ones senses, not just sight. I think Sensory Museums are a wonderful, if not unsanitary, idea. I think the current museum standards of looking and not touching are well-founded in knowing the value and rarity of the objects contained, and with an interest in preserving them for as long as possible. Certain objects, which are suitably protected from damage and theft, should be available for consumption by Museum patrons through whichever reasonable sense they should choose. However other objects, in danger of serious damage or contamination should be adequately protected. I believe that the use of multiple senses in understanding an object could absolutely bring a deeper and more intimate relationship with it, but I also don’t believe we should risk invaluable, irreplaceable artifacts because of someones’ desire to put their nose to it.

Sensory Lab Reflection – Starbucks

The most immediate observation I made about Starbucks was visual, in the crowds and lines of people as well as the people walking through the space in both directions. It is most over-whelming visually. The space is organized into a line for ordering, a crowd for picking up, and a station for customizing. There are baskets displaying merchandise for sale, shelves displaying merchandise for sale, and boards describing the drinks, sizes, and snacks available. The Starbucks structure itself is made of wood and tile, and strives to appear clean and cozy. Around the top of the kiosk are black and white images of the places that the coffee originates from, and various stages of production.

The next sensorium to notice was smell. The hallway that houses Starbucks smells of strong coffee. I don’t drink coffee and so the smell doesn’t mean much to me, but I imagine that to an avid coffee drinker it would be comforting and enticing.

If I were to have gone through the line and ordered a drink, I would have touched my money, my cup, maybe the hand of the barista or the counter. I would have held the warm cup and maybe the shakers of spice. In the area in general, you can feel the breeze coming from the doors at both ends of the space letting in cold air.

If there is one thing Starbucks has to offer it would be taste. As the board advertises, there are dozens of flavours available in coffee, tea, espresso, etc that can be customized at the station with different spices and toppings.

Sound was the least interesting/abundant  sense at Starbucks. Students had quiet conversations with their friends or typed on their computers, but they tended to blend together and there was no singular noise or soundtrack to follow.

Perhaps because I didn’t order a coffee or because I am perceptive, I found Starbucks was most interesting visually. The location caused an atmosphere of bustle and haste, and the line-up created stress and impatience, merely through seeing them. The visual displays of the kiosk are easily identifiable as advertisement and encourage the sale of Starbucks.

Desjarlais, the Yolmo Buddhists and Vision

   Desjarlais’ article on the Yolmo Wa describes in the context of an ethnography the meaning and operation of sight and vision within their culture in Nepal. It provides an excellent introduction to the study of ‘The Anthropology of the Senses’ by offering ways of understanding the sense of sight that are likely completely foreign to most of our class.

   The article explains that for the Yolmo, sight is a physical extension of the body, extending from the eyes ‘like a flashlight’ and making contact with what is in view. They understand the process of seeing as an interaction, wherein the line of sight affects the object seen, and the object affects the see-er, making them sad or happy, or allowing them to understand something.  A particularly potent example of this which illustrates the spirituality of the Yolmo Wa is the act of gazing upon an image or model of a deity, which for them is not a one-way process but in fact an interaction, where the deity is able to see the gazer also. They also believe that the line of sight has real invasive power, where envy can be translated and injected through a glance and make a person or object ill and affected.

   Desjarlais explains that sight is divided into two methods of visual action. Thonge designates a general vision, taking things in with your eyes in a way that is not necessarily active or inquisitive, while Tage is a gaze used with intention and inquiry.

   Sight is a powerful and privileged sense for the Yolmo, where seeing is literally believing. Seeing something with one’s own eyes constitutes powerful evidence for their people, and one may feel unable or unwilling to act on something they have not seen themselves. Similarly, spoken word for them holds little value, while word that has been dictated and cemented as script carries enormous weight and authority. Books and written word are sacred for the Yolmo Wa because they can be seen, and understood through sight.

   I found this reading engaging, readable and very relevant. It is anthropological in its application within a foreign and unfamiliar culture, and serves as a powerful introduction to the vast and fluid understanding of the senses. The Yolmo’s grasp of sight as spiritual, individual, and penetrating harshly contrasts a Western, biological understanding of the eye, and allows the student of the senses to approach the subject with a broad, culturally informed mind.