Sensory deprivation

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

BRATTLEBORO — 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.

We have traditionally voiced deep affection for our stunning landscapes and the resident wild animals that have awed us. We have historically pondered the variability of the seasons, mused about our streams, rivers and lakes, and we have meditated on the mountains and valleys with a poetic appreciation.

It all started with accessing the full, unmediated sensory experience: smells, movements, colors, sounds, the feel of the landscape, moisture in the air, the ambient light, and so many other sensory gifts that have registered in our limbic brain and then were felt right down to our bones.

Could our nearly-century-old relationship with the automobile in Vermont be systematically eroding our longstanding emotional resonance with the land?

* * *

While the automobile undoubtedly adds much to our lives and has extended mobility for Vermonters like nothing before it, I believe it also limits us in ways that have been strangely hidden.

There is a great cost here: its speed, insulation, protection, climate control, and social isolation cripple our perspective of distance, terrain, natural soundscapes, and connections to biological communities, including human communities, and might even weaken and distort our bodies.

Once our emotional attachments and connections become compromised, we might begin to love and care less about the human and non-human world alike.

Furthermore, the modern automobile comfortably shields and dissociates us from the storm of its own power, speed, rumble, danger, and emissions occurring just beyond its metal shell.

While we sit contentedly in the car, our communities are fragmented by the psychological impact of the individual and collective roar, bulk, and various discharges of the mass numbers of these machines in motion on our landscape. Cars overpower the natural soundscapes and scents of the world while also manifesting a sense of endangerment, marginalizing more ecologically sensible and community-minded modes of transport, and perpetuating a 1950s vision of planning, development, and lifestyle.

When we drive, it's like we're transformed into a creature who is oblivious to its effect on the more-than-car world outside of us, much like the relationship the A-senee-ki-wakw had with the world outside of their “stoneness.”

Furthermore, the noise and disruption of car traffic in our communities also limbically obstructs those who are not in a car: walkers, bikers, nature lovers, gardeners, hikers, skateboarder, bench sitters, friends and lovers connecting, and countless others.

So for everyone, the overriding of our sensory experiences disrupts exactly what we like best about our limbic brain: its immense potential to resonate and bond to the things in the world we cherish and desire to protect.

Then perhaps it's not just the perceived comfort and speed that facilitates our assimilation into the automobile.

Once you add in the impact of the collective “motorized majority” - the ecology of fear and sensory disruption on so many levels - this is quite conceivably a major factor that drives so many of us into the exclusive use of the automobile.

* * *

Whether we know it or not, our technologies have a way of insinuating and then assimilating themselves into our perspective of the world.

In his fabulous book Wild Hunger: The Primal Roots of Modern Addiction, Bruce Wilshire states that “whenever a technology becomes routine, it tends to be regarded as normal, no matter how great the disruption to the balance of things.”

So, as we languidly gaze out from our automobiles at our beautiful Vermont terrain in this age of climate change and vast ecological disruption, perhaps a substantial part of us is now firmly assimilated into the machine.

Are we becoming something else? This question might conjure up sci-fi themes of half-human, half-machine cyborg creatures or, of course, the A-senee-ki-wakw. But, in some very weird way, this assimilation has quite conceivably become our daily normal existence.

Has the thing we call the “car” assimilated itself into our worldview? Is it possible that we haven't noticed this because this is exactly what we're not supposed to notice?

* * *

I just want to make it clear that I'm not calling for the end of automobiles or refuting their utility or genius. Cars have undoubtedly been an amazing convenience and a useful tool for Vermonters.

However, I am trying to point out a way in which we can understand the limitations of a car-centric society and especially the psychological and sociological impact of the sheer number of cars on the landscape.

Automobiles will never be blessed with emotional intelligence. Only we possess that.

Therefore, new automotive technologies will by no means overcome the deepening isolation that cars create between us and world, nor will they aid in authentically solving any of the issues we face in this time of profound ecological world crisis. Your driving a Prius, Leaf, Humvee, or monster truck might not make much of a difference when it comes to our brains, our experience of the world, peace on this planet, ecological sanity, safety for kids, or anything else that really matters.

So what are we to do?

I certainly don't have all the answers. There are so many factors at play here - economic, societal, population, life choices, infrastructure, policies, advertising, technology - that it is impossible for anyone to have the “one” solution. But I'll put forward a couple of possible starting places.

* * *

One might be for us to gain an understanding of who we are as human beings in a way that is independent of the automobile.

We could start by slowly unpacking the underlying assumptions, stories, and meanings that propel the car in our psyche, on our roads, within our society.

Maybe we can ask ourselves just how much of our ideas and notions of the automobile are actually ours and how much are a product of our assimilation into it.

What's at stake here could be only our emotional link to the world, our children's future, a planet, our communities, and a happiness not completely inhabited by denial.

Thankfully, unlike the fate of the A-senee-ki-wakw stone titans, I trust our story will be different. I believe we have a remarkable potential to reclaim one of our greatest assets: the ability to genuinely feel, love, attach, and experience compassion - essential qualities for us to effectively appreciate any of our problems and to engage in positive action.

But whether we're comforting our loved ones or working to create change in the world, caring is first initiated by opening up and not isolating ourselves from the wide spectrum of sensory encounters available to us.

Secondly, when we travel by car, we might wish to begin a practice of noticing the world outside the car: What is your connection to the particular aspects of world you are passing through? What are you missing? What would it feel like if you were standing right next to your car as it passed by?

Furthermore, when walking, biking, or sitting anywhere in the presence of traffic, begin to notice what is happening there. Is there something strange about human creatures in 5,000-pound boxes on wheels? What do you notice about the impact they have on the soundscape, the air, your sense of safety, or your ecological connection to the place you are inhabiting at the moment?

Both of these steps are not particularly action- or solution-oriented, but they are steps in perceiving and perhaps flipping our normative way of observing, seeing beyond what “appears” to be so “routine.”

Flipping around how we see our day-to-day world is an imperative step toward an understanding of how to regain and amplify our limbic resonance for our local bioregion and planet as a whole.

And I believe that right now we are being called upon to honor our human limbic brain inheritance to experience, love, and care for our children and their future world in the way in which we ourselves were intrinsically designed.

Perhaps it's time to begin to think and experience more of our lives outside of the box - literally and figuratively.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates