Axolotl

Weird how cultural perceptions change over time. When I was a kid, axolotls were really freaky looking, almost science fiction, even scary, like aliens. As bizarre looking a creature as you could find in earth. Even the name, a Nahuatl word (they are found in lakes around Mexico City), meant water monster. A little foot long water monster, pink (a relatively rare color in the wild, they are typically brownish) and exotic and weird, especially with those bizarre juvenile gills retained in adulthood. Now in this adorable educational video, fifty years later, they are seen as positively cute. They look cute to me even. How can anyone not love that anthropomorphized smile? Ripley (distinctly not a Nahuatl word for water monster) seems to have a personality, like an anime character (though in Japan, where giant salamanders are five feet long and without the neotenic gills, salamanders are more unnerving than cute and even show up in a Godzilla movie). Somewhere over this past half century there’s been a fundamental shift in what is freakish and what is cute, a shift that even changed my own perceptions. Who knows how this works. Collective thinking. We have barely scratched the surface of the surface of the surface in understanding our brains, and not gotten anywhere at all in figuring how all our brains work together. We stumble through existence with this unparalleled device in our heads, clueless, almost, as to what it is making us think and see and do and remember.

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Ruminations on why you would rather look at a funny cat video than read this.

“Here’s another way of saying it: We are the first few generations to receive most of our sense of the world mediated rather than direct, to have it arrive through one screen or another instead of from contact with other human beings or with nature.”–Bill McKibben, The Mental Environment (2013)

Language itself totally changed and shaped our perception of the world, what we see and what we say our two dramatically different things, with what we see being much more accurate than how we say it. In many ways, information brought to us visually on screen–movie, television, computer–is more accurate and unfiltered than what we read in books, newspapers or magazines. Widespread literacy dramatically changed human perception. But visual information on our screens subverts language…a reversal of a long time trend. Language began to supplant vision, at first at the origin of speech itself a quarter million years ago and then again, dramatically, with the invention of writing. The printing press and widespread literacy began to change how people viewed the world and processed information. Sight and language battle for control in getting us information. For a couple centuries there as reading became universal (first in the United States, we were the truly literate nation after mandatory education was introduced with the founding of the republic) the written word took precedence and people would almost always believe what they read over what they saw. Movies, television and the internet are allowing the ocular part of our brain to increase its control of our information process. People read less now and look at video more. So what the internet has done is to weaken the power of language in our perception by allowing us to watch video. It has also, first through email conversation and then through texting and finally Facebook, made writing more akin to speech. Writers like me are constantly struggling with ways to get people to trust language again. So what we are seeing now is the retreat of written language in the brain as there are more ways now than ever before to watch instead of read things.

Another thing to consider is religion. Even in a world free from any sort of video or writing, as in the middle ages, when most people in Europe read not at all, their perception of reality was less accurate and direct than it is today because religion completely shaped the way people saw reality. You can see that just reading medieval and middle ages texts. Instead of seeing things directly as they were, everything was filtered though religious dogma and belief. So language had enabled religion and written language had enabled codified religious dogma which could be recited to people who couldn’t read, and which then severely limited people’s perception of reality even though few of them could read and there were almost no media at all. Free of ironclad and enforced dogma now (no one gets burned at the stake for blasphemy anymore in this country) we certainly have more appreciation of nature than they did then. People have been walking through the forests now for centuries. We preserve forests in national parks and lace them with hiking trails. But in the Middle Ages and even into the Enlightenment Europeans were terrified of forests. Mountains were a source of evil. Deserts full of ghosts and djinn. Nature more scary than it was beautiful. Even rainbows had their dangerous wee people.

The written word changed all of that. The more we read, the less scared we are. Now, with visual information coming to the fore again, via television and the internet, people seem to be more scared, or at least more wary, scared of each other. Partly, I think, because the brain takes in anything visual as self-experienced, it does not distinguish between you being in a car accident and watching a car accident on TV. It feels it viscerally as if you were in the crashing car. And now, when it sees scary video on the news or YouTube or even scary crime stories and reality programs, it automatically sets off fear and concern, often absurdly out of proportion, because our brain cannot analyze it the way we can with language. It sees everything as reality. Language does not do that. Reality programs are not possible as literature.

So today it is not so much that people who watch the internet all day long are out of touch with real life, it’s that the brain sees everything on TV or the internet as real life, no matter how ridiculous that is, or how out of context that video was. Just shoot it with a hand held camera and it looks real. Language can add context. When we read our language based analytical skills give context, and when we even listen to spoken words–news, for instance–we automatically add context. We look for raw footage of disasters precisely because there is no narrator to ruin the you-are-there sensation. 

The problem now is not the current internet drive world’s lack of direct contact with other people and nature. It is the lack of analytical context, which, unfortunately, is entirely based on language, whether written or spoken (or even thought–we think in language, but we do not see pictures and film in language.) You cannot have, apparently, a world full of video and simultaneous logical explanations. The two literally do not go together, since the parts or our brains that take in visual information and the parts that logically analyzes it are two different things, indeed are in different lobes (back and front, respectively). We haven’t yet figured out a way to merge the two.

I’m working on it, though.