Most of the experiences I have focused on in this column dealing with sensory distortion in modern technological society have been visual experiences.  Yes, I have dealt with noise pollution from construction sites and from traffic jams and from other situations of modern life, but mostly just in passing.

Today, I want to focus on a technological solution to noise pollution and why it just creates new problems.  We now have a way to not only pass music directly to our ears through headphones, but we have a way to eliminate all background noise through noise cancelling headphones.  Not only do these new headphones get rid of ambient noise, but, as a result, they improve the quality of the music experience that we want to have.  And of course they get rid of all the abrasive noises that irritate us anyway: honking cars, machine noises at construction sites, loud pedestrians, subway noises.  So what could be the problem with using these headphones?

Imagine if a person didn’t like the visuals of where he was walking.  Imagine that the person found a way to insert a computer screen in front of his eyes so that he didn’t have to visually experience the area through which he was walking.  We will also imagine that, even though he wouldn’t be able to see obstacles in his path, that he was somehow able to navigate around them, maybe through something like sonar.  So he would no longer need his sight to avoid getting hurt.  But looking where one walks has another purpose.  It grounds one in one’s visual living environment.  It puts a person in a unitary field of experience where he is, in a sense, an integral part of that with which he is surrounded.  The person internalizes this.  In addition, the unitary field of experience mirrors the person, and models for him a sense of coherence that the person internalizes for his sense of self.  In other words, it is not only individual entities that can mirror and model for people, but whole fields of experience as well.

A person can’t ground himself in a screen reality, where grounding is always prevented by a plastic screen.  A screen breaks up a sense of a unitary field of visual experience.  And this weakens the possibility of coherence in a person’s sense of self.  By the same token, noise cancelling headphones, in separating a person from the auditory field of experience that surrounds him, also weakens the person’s sense of self from a different sensory perspective.  Granted that hearing is not as important as seeing for humans in order to navigate successfully in the external world.  But auditory cues tell a person when someone is approaching that he knows.  Perhaps a friend will shout out a person’s name in order to get his attention.  With noise cancelling headphones, a person hears nothing.

In effect, noise cancelling headphones fragment what would otherwise be a unitary field of experience.  What we have is a headphone reality existing alongside a visual external world reality.  The two are not connected.  And this disjunction leads to a weakened sense of grounding in both the auditory and visual realms.  Which means that both realms together create in the experiential spaces between them an experiential vacuum which in turn leads to numbness.

Listening to music through noise cancelling headphones is not the same as listening to music on electronic devices without headphones.  In the latter case, the music blends with the noises and voices in the external world and becomes part of the whole auditory realm of experience and, by extension, with a person’s whole unitary field of experience.  But in today’s world, it becomes more and more difficult to find people who are interested in building their lives within more unitary fields of experience.  To gain control over their sensory experiences, people feel a need to compartmentalize their sensory fields.  The screens of television, computers, video games, smartphones and tables represent compartmentalized self-contained patches of visual experience that are totally separate from what is going on in the visual world around them.  To the extent that there are noises, voices, and music without headphones, they can blend more easily with the noises, voices and music occurring already in the external world reality.

A broken-up field of experience indirectly creates a larger mirroring and modeling situation where a person, in an unconscious imitation of that which surrounds him, develops a broken-up sense of self.  So, in attempting to gain a greater control over one’s external living environment through compartmentalizing it and manipulating one chunk of it at a time, one becomes susceptible to losing control over one’s internal living environment.  Here I am not talking about inventing new tools that are useful for work, or creating new products. As long as they are created within external world reality, they remain a part of a unitary field of experience.  And recorded music that is not bottled up by headphones can blend in, to some extent, with the noises and voices of a larger unitary field of experience.  Unlike visual screen reality, which becomes an isolated patch of a larger field of experience, recorded music without headphones can be a little closer to listening to a live performance.  Not exactly, because there’s no visual group of people playing instruments and singing.  But recorded music without noise-cancelling headphones can enhance the external world experiences and events in which one is participating within the external world.

And by contrast, so it is that when the recorded music is experientially isolated from the larger external world reality that larger problems emerge.  This may sound like an extreme interpretation of something as seeming innocent as a type of headphones.  But so much inventing of new products is going on in today’s world and there is so much psychological pathology present among today’s humans.  And it’s my belief that many of these seemingly innocent new products are not so innocent in their negative psychological effects on the people who are using them.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow