Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sensory modalities

I took a drive up the White Salmon River Canyon to shoot some photos of Mt. Adams this past week, and ended up having a unexpected moment of profound silence after climbing out of the car to wait for the clouds to lift off the big volcano (upper left corner in the photo below).

Utterly quiet at first. No bird song, no susurration of wind, no animal cries or even the rustling scurry of small furry things--the mountain clearing and adjoining forest apparently still in the final stage of winter's suspended animation at this altitude. After a minute or two, the nearly subliminal sound of melt water trickling out of nearby mounds of snow grew audible, seemingly ex nihlo from the void of sensory deprivation. After several additional minutes of deliberate listening I registered a distant breeze in the top of the pines in the direction of the nearest highland valley. Then a lower, enveloping murmur of water in motion all around me. Not just the melt from the nearest piles of snow, but liquid seeping beneath the logged clearing's floor of dry pine needles. Last to join this continuum of expanding awareness was the faint, shifting rasp of those millions of fallen needles as they warmed quickly in the direct sunlight after a night of well below freezing temps. Almost a soft, surf-like roar on the very faintest, lowest edge of hearing.

I'd almost forgotten what it's like to be in such a complete silence, and just how much information there is in the bandwidth of human hearing once the mind has adjusted to it.

One thing I very much miss from the days of being an Army cavalry scout is just how plugged into the environment it's possible to be. We really use precious little of our in-built audio capabilities when living in an industrial society.

And that's true of other senses as well. One of my favorites memories of gradually becoming aware of just how much we miss in the world around us is from the train up for a ground invasion of Kosovo during the NATO air war against Serbian forces there in the spring of 1999. While the main body of the armor battalion I was stationed with fought its way through a narrow pass against the Combat Maneuver Training Center's opposition force at Hoensfeld, Germany, we scouts slipped around and then spread out behind the constricted terrain to put eyes on choke points farther along the lines of advance, and to check for additional enemy defenses.

After several hours of quietly following a wood line and locating a pair of concealed enemy observation posts, my section sergeant and I came across a narrow point between two forested hillsides that formed a natural defile--a confined passage that would constrict the movement of an armor formation and make an excellent killing zone.

Only there was no one there. Suspicious, we dropped our rucks and crawled carefully through the flora of the defile's southern slope; then studied the slope on the far side. Still nothing. So the section sergeant had us wait, lying in the bushes and staring for several minutes.

And suddenly it was all there. Camouflaged fighting positions, hidden trenches, concealed bunkers, and several dozen soldiers in battle dress, eating MREs, performing maintenance, and keeping watch in total silence. It was very much like one of the Magic Eye paintings popular in the early 90s. Only rather than a confusion of pixels hiding a crude stereographic 3D image, the chaotic visual noise of the German forest and hills had yielded man-made patterns of simulated lethality.

As time went on, I grew more adept at seeing what was out in the world before me, rather than seeing my expectations of what should be there. Or differently put, seeing the physical world rather than the assumptions that my mind populated it with.

Part of what made my senses so keen back then was my gradual acclimation to dealing with natural information rather than cultural. Natural information being sensory impressions of the physical world and the short-term, immediate implications of those perceived objects and events. It's being able to pick out a faint wisp of smoke and realize that it implies the presence of fire. This is an ancient category of data. A primal type that our brains originally evolved to process. It's similar to and overlapping, but different from the abstract cultural information that is social relations, cultural norms, and behavioral expectation.

Both types involve immensely sophisticated, associative modeling in the brain, but cultural information is tied into some recently evolved neurobiological data processing modules that generate an awareness of other human beings' perceptions, and their potential emotional responses to both present events and possible future situations.

Natural information is a product of modeling the external world; cultural information is glimpse of the inner worlds of others, both as individuals and as groups. Natural information is focused more on the here and now, and only a little on what comes next. Cultural information, meanwhile, is much more probabilistic, and it goes hand-glove with those simulations of the future that we call reasoning and anticipation.

One negative aspect of my past two years of living in the middle of a large city been the temptation to give up that natural-information level of awareness out of politeness. The urban landscape is obviously a vastly different volume of space from a mountain clearing near the foot of a glacier-covered volcano. There are a variety of social protocols that govern the very act of seeing in the shared spaces of an urban foot traffic environment. Among those informal norms is a very limited amount of acceptable eye contact with strangers on the friendly streets of Portland, and precious little time in which it's appropriate to take note of another human being's body language, physical proximity, and what they're doing with their hands.

Active sight violates all kinds of common social expectations. The requisite scanning and the punctuated pauses of deliberate, evaluative gazes make people nervous. The timing is all wrong, and being so deliberately engaged sends a warning signal. While active sight can create an zen-like sense of connection to the fluid and ever-evolving environment for the watcher, it generally provokes a negative emotional response in bystanders.

As I wrote about last year, learning to transgress social spaces is a learned skill set. It's one that's very much tied into how we conceptualize different spaces, as well as the cultural weight of the rules that we assign to those environments. Such rules and models very much affect not just our expectations of what's in those spaces, but how we let ourselves observe them.

Off course some degree of compromise is necessary for a harmonious life in a largely tranquil urban setting, but there are days when it's fun or simply reassuring to put on a pair of sunglasses and really look around to see what's actually out there, rather than being content with the choppy glimpses that are socially appropriate to existing in a modern society.

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