The Commons
Voices / Viewpoint

Sensory deprivation

With the design and speed of the automobile, drivers experience a flat-screen version of the social and ecological world

Dave Cohen, a psychotherapist and an ecopsychologist, blends body-oriented and mindfulness therapies with approaches that draw on the healing potential of the natural world.

Originally published in The Commons issue #214 (Wednesday, July 31, 2013).

“Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson


A traditional story of the Abenaki Indian people, who have lived in Vermont for thousands of years, tells of a time when the creator finished making the Earth and all the plants and animals, then decided to fashion the A-senee-ki-wakw, a new inhabitant to join the other beings.

Unfortunately, the A-senee-ki-wakw, people made of stone, were unfeeling creatures, who with their gargantuan bulk destroyed everything in their path — trees, creeks, animals, meadows — because they lacked an ability to take in the sensory experiences of the more-than-stone world around them.

Perhaps these stone people loved their own kind, but they were severely emotionally unavailable to the world outside of themselves and therefore possessed little awareness of the impact of their brute force and the out-of-scale mass of their bodies.

After hearing this story, I was quickly struck by a terrifying vision of a landscape with gargantuan bodies run amok. I began to realize that perhaps a new version of the A-senee-ki-wakw has returned to Vermont.

Who are the new stone people? I believe it’s the union of car and driver. With the rise of the hyper-motorization of our towns, cities, lives, and psyches, the car has conceivably altered the inner landscape of our minds as much as it has radically transformed our physical landscape.

Now, how could this wondrous machine — which helps connect us to people and our jobs, gets the kids around, is beloved by virtually every dog, has nice names like Civic, Expedition, Outback, Fiesta, Beetle, Prius, and Leaf, and takes us to places we love to visit — possibly be associated with the second coming of the colossal stone beings?

* * *

I believe that inherent in the very design and speed of the automobile are characteristics that foster a profound strain of sensory deprivation — for the driver and occupant alike — that dramatically restricts our emotional contact with the greater world.

This sensory inhibition acutely diminishes and deeply fragments our connection, curiosity, and compassion toward the communities we encounter, as well as the terrain and vastly complex biological communities we pass through.

We experience a sort of flat-screen version of the social and ecological world, stripped of many of the sensory and convivial nutrients we require to mindfully join with our communities and the landscapes that bring us all into context.

One approach to probing the sensory deficit phenomenon we sustain from within a car is through modern brain science, particularly the research on our limbic region. That’s the part of our brain that, among many other things, enables us to love, bond, and attach to other people.

The limbic mind needs sensory stimulation in order for it to feel deeply — the more the better. The more we are open to the texture, scent, sight, shape, sound, and even taste of the things and people we love, the more we may actually love.

In their wonderful book about the brain and love, A General Theory of Love, authors Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon describe something they call “limbic resonance.” That’s what arises when we really see our kids, partner, or anybody we care for deeply and we take them in fully through our senses.

But the limbic brain not only negotiates our feelings and attachments to the people we love, it also helps to generate our emotional response and connection to the Earth — how we feel the places we live or any place we might find ourselves.

The stone A-senee-ki-wakw might have had the so-called “higher abilities” to think, reason, and speak, but they tragically lacked a limbic connection to the world they inhabited.

* * *

Interestingly, limbic resonance with the land is part of our heritage as Vermonters.

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Comments (1)

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Sterling McCord (Bend-Or, US) says...
Be the Change
22nd November 2013 2:02pm
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