On the other hand, you have different fingers – Steven Wright
When I was a little lad (difficult to imagine now but only too easy for me to get back into who I was then now… seeing, hearing & feeling all the things I experienced those long years ago…) I used to spend some time looking in a mirror trying to change the appearance of my face with deliberate contortions; repeated observation of what I took to be my ‘real face’ had made it all too familiar and I desperately wanted something else; I was too full of my own face. In similar mode I often repeated my first name over and over again to hear it somehow drain itself of meaning till it bore no relationship to the inner self I felt myself to be. “Colincoli ncolinc olin colinco lincol inco lincoli ncoli nco lin col inco lin…”
One afternoon, coming home from school, I lay on a grass verge at the top of ‘our road’ and stared at the signpost ‘Elmstead Gardens’ – ElmsteadGardens GElmsteadardens Elms tea dGar densel mstea dgar densteadgar densel mstea dg arden ssss… I found myself floating away from things as they used to be; it was as if for a moment I failed to recognise my surroundings at all, as though I wasn’t there which led to a question I frequently asked myself, “What would it be like if I wasn’t here at all?” I still ask it!
It was another twenty years before I discovered that the ‘Elmstead Gardens Event’ had a label which put me in the company of other people! It is somewhat comforting, if disappointing, to discover that you’re not unique.
…many people, especially those who are sensitive to their own states of conscious awareness, …have also experienced [what’s] known as ‘alienation’: … a brief period in which intimately known situations and persons are experienced as being strange and unfamiliar. In normally healthy people, these experiences of paradoxical recognition are infrequent and their cause is not easy to discover.
IMLHunter: Memory (1957 reprinted 1964)
In IMLHunter’s brilliant book which I read when I imagined I was learning the art of teaching in 1966 I discovered that there was also a label for the result of the over-repetition of words.
If we pronounce a word over and over again, rapidly and without pause, …[it] is felt to lose meaning. Take any word, say, chimney. Say it repeatedly and in rapid succession. Within some seconds, the word loses meaning. This loss is referred to as ‘semantic satiation’. What seems to happen is that the word forms a kind of closed loop with itself… Normally, when a word is used it has meaning in the sense that it is a momentary component of some developing theme… [or] train of activity… But after repeated pronunciation, this meaningful continuation of the word is blocked since, now, the word leads only to its own recurrence… It is noteworthy that in such rapidly repeated speech, some words may even become difficult to pronounce. This effect is sometimes comparable to the familiar confusion which arises in so-called tongue-twisters: the difficulty is to switch rapidly between two closely similar but different patterns of vocal articulation.
[The effect] of closely massed repetition of verbal material [is] parallelled in a variety of situations where the same material is rapidly repeated. For example, prolonged inspection of some visual figures may give rise to peculiar alterations in the appearance of the material. Such effects are perhaps of limited practical concern, but they are of interest in discovering the functional principles which govern the organization of human activities.
There have been various anecdotal explanations of the mechanical reasons for all this: perhaps repeating a word over and over draws attention to the surface features of the word itself which we would not normally pay attention to – focussed experience of seeing or hearing a word feels different from the normal way in which we gloss over it; perhaps when, in the ordinary course of events, we generate a word, there is also the thought of an entire sentence and its meaning which continuous repetition of a word deprives it of – deprived of the context which gives a word meaning it ceases to have one; it may be that constant repetition causes the body to perform one function and the mind another – then the nervous system is paying less attention to pronunciation, concern of muscles, being more attuned to a memory task.
It turns out that there is a brainy explanation for the phenomenon: in the cortex, verbal repetition repeatedly arouses a specific neural pattern that corresponds to the meaning of the word. But then rapid repetition makes both ‘peripheral sensorimotor activity’ and ‘central neural activation’ fire repeatedly. This is known to cause ‘reactive inhibition’, hence a reduction in the intensity of the activity with each repetition. Leon Jakobovits James (1962) calls this conclusion the beginning of ‘experimental neurosemantics’.
‘Reactive inhibition’ is apparently a term that expresses the tendency for ‘response magnitude’ to a stimulus to decrease with increasing exposure or fatigue; a lessening of reaction the more we are exposed to a stimulus.
At the beginning of August 2018 I had woken in the middle of the night during a period of intense activity during which I had to stay really focussed, consumed by the enthusiasm of an organisational burden. I was, I suppose it could be said, ‘satiated’ with the idea of making sure that the result of my efforts would flow without a hitch, everything taken into account, digested properly, people, things and events.
Leon Jakobovits James (ibid) points out that many other names have been used for what appears to be essentially the same process: inhibition (Herbert, 1824, quoted by Boring, 1950), refractory phase and mental fatigue (Dodge, 1917), lapse of meaning (Bassett & Warne, 1919), work decrement (Robinson and Bills, 1926), cortical inhibition (Pavlov, 1920), adaptation (Gibson, 1937), extinction (Hilgard and Marquis, 1940), satiation (Kohler & Wallach, 1940), reactive inhibition (Hull, 1913), stimulus satiation (Glanzer, 1953), verbal satiation (Smith and Raygor, 1956), and verbal transformation (Warren, 1961b)…
Stimulus Satiation! Constantly bombarded with stimuli of all kinds, visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, kinaesthetic, there comes a point when we’ve had enough and can take no more, enough of what we see, hear, feel, smell & taste as individual events.
Thinking about this, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps human beings can be satiated not just by words but by a host of other things. Looking up Hunter on Memory again, I was excited by the idea of satiation (and maybe alienation), while being ‘of limited practical concern’, having something to do with ‘…the functional principles which govern the organization of human activities…’ Could all human activities be fundamentally affected by the experience of satiation? That’s the question! And what’s the result?
Both caused internal transformation of some kind!
I sensed that the new labels I acquired in 1966 had something in common. ‘Alienation’ and ‘semantic satiation’ – the transformation of normal experience and the transformation of the habitual sound or look of words. The keyword is ‘transformation’ – things shifting around out of conscious control, as they do. Words getting on top of us; things and events going beyond the point where we can make natural sense out of them. When it’s satiated, full of itself, there’s a way in which what we like to label ‘consciousness’ does things that are beyond sense and awareness like the facility we have for making wayward connections: in the middle of all this it occurred to me without conscious thought, being simply the result of some mental connecting facility, that Wordsworth had more than a word for it, indeed had a whole sonnet related to it!
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
The world is too much with us: material concerns, theories and invented belief systems come between us and the way things really are; how rewarding it might be if we could shuffle them off and go back (or forward) to having, like sea & moon, wind & flowers, some direct relationship between us and what’s ‘out there’, the experience of Pure Impressions, unmediated by the clutter of indigestible thought. Maybe a pagan view of things would work; some direct experience of the intrinsic power of things, as represented by the old gods, without thought or feeling; we could be the ancient gods of wind & sea; nothing between us and things as they are; recognising our status as a part of Nature, being ‘natural’. The old gods, like the new ones, are simply projected aspects of self.
In what ways do we have the experience of satiation, getting to the point where we are full up to the brim? We can be overwhelmed by all sorts of things – not just by food & drink or words.
• We can become satiated by events: the cup of tea first thing every morning for sixty years, receiving & answering emails all day long, the whole daily round, one thing after another, breakfast, dinner, tea, bed, breakfast…
• Certainly with age, but maybe earlier, there’s what could be called Temporal Satiation, the regularity of tick-tock things – dustbin days, ‘measuring out our lives with coffee spoons’, the forever circuit of the years, months, days, hours, which seem to go more & more quickly with anticipation & familiarity…
• Personal Satiation – being overwhelmed by self and others, giving rise to the question of how can we be different from who we are, make new responses to familiar people?
• Habit Satiation – saying & doing & feeling the same things over and over again in exactly the same way. Mechanical fixation on attention, action, opinion, experience.
• Life Satiation – the way things get on top of you: the same things happening over and over again. responding to spring, summer, autumn, winter, Xmas & Easter & Samhain thrown in.
• Listening/hearing Satiation – the same tunes, the same patterns of words, the same ideas, repeated political sloganising, advertising, trailers.
• Visual Satiation – all such things on television or billboards.
• Speech Satiation – hearing yourself saying the same thing over and over again.
• Thinking Satiation – the tiresomeness of the same old patterns of ratiocination.
• Idea Satiation – an idea can take over your whole being: writing something about satiation, for example; thought viruses
• Sleep Satiation
• Memory Satiation
• Abstraction Satiation – a few years ago I wrote a whole book about the way we can become absorbed in abstractions to the exclusion of ‘concrete reality’…
• Conventional Wisdom Satiation – all too easy to become soused in whatever seems to be normal or acceptable: that ‘the defence of the realm’ is worth spending huge amounts of money on.
• Zeitgeist Satiation – the ‘spirit of the age’ shifts around: once there was an industrial revolution now it might be mass computerisation, the insidious way in which everything becomes focussed on technology.
• Status Quo Satiation – keeping things as they are makes life easier than it might be.
• Ideological Satiation
• Political Ideology Satiation – you know it makes sense, everybody agrees…
There’s a lot of overlap; just a slightly different slant on the same kind of idea each time but maybe the mental result is the same. What is the upshot of being satiated? Alienation by repetition; self-alienation; the desire to get out of this body and into another yet to be specified.
Satiation is a result of identification, of over-identification with sameness.
The sameness of things, mechanical reactions to seemingly endless repetition, being locked into a pattern of events and significations;’, tedium leading to what they call ‘depression’ or boredom. Familiarity with the same old things could be associated with old age & decrepitude – seen it all so many times before – but I don’t think it’s just a matter of ‘getting past it’ .
• Satiation Satiation
Is it what people describe as ‘being bored’? I cannot begin to imagine what it is to be bored – though I never was subjected to it, it seems to be a young person’s disease – but I can certainly understand satiety.
Is there a way out of being satiated? Perhaps the creative life, the possibility of constant renewal?
I cannot imagine
what life (this senseless rigmarole)
is about unless it be
the constant making & doing –
a cashing in on the sub-text of thought
concatenations of innumerable strings
of this & that
made up of the vastly improbable
come to life explosions
of felicity bungles
eating cheese & pickle
late at night for a nightmare
one thing after another –
a different kind of rigmarole
the dotted rhythms
the linguistic icing on some cake
a watercolour sketch that lets the light in
– plenty of room for manouevre
infinite chains of events
from here on this summer lawn
up into the stratosphere;
new kinds of sandwiches & soups
Being creative is continually ‘making new’, breaking old patterns
Simply STOP! Shouting STOP! at yourself. Pattern interrupt. The Great Switcharoo…
Maybe we always become satiated: even the construction of new patterns will become a drag after a time? Does ‘on to the next thing’ become an idle consequence of moving from one pattern to another? We are stuck! Life-satiation…
I become satiated with the act of putting this piece of writing together from scrappy notes I made over a week ago; I am not satiated with the idea I am pursuing though – satiated with the doing but not with the idea… It is an essay I’m crafting – the trial run of an idea; I don’t think I know what I’m aiming at till I see what I write. In spite of oppressive satiation with tapping on the keyboard, I desperately want the result to make sense.
Montaigne (1533–1592) was first to describe his work as consisting of ‘essays’; he used the term to characterize these as ‘attempts’ (essais) to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplace books. I feel not unpleased that my essays grow out of my notebooks – I suppose they could be called ‘commonplace books’.
An essay is a try-out. An attempt to say what you mean, mean what you say, do what you do what you do, be-do-be-do-be-do... One could be always trying new things out in order to escape sameness & satiation.
My recent excessive focus on the complex organisational activity referred to earlier resulted in ‘reactive inhibition’, a generalised loss of enthusiasm for things which had previously absorbed me in other ways; I felt empty. It seems that one can be satiated in two ways: overwhelm and underwhelm! Satiated by identification with being empty as well as being full up. It’s a pendulum thing! As usual, to find a way out it is perhaps only necessary to discover what might be at the nadir of the swing.It’s a problem to do with identifying with either kind of satiation; what’s needed is to decontaminate one’s current state of being and then make an essai to keep tabs on what’s next…
Where do essais come from? Not out of thin air nor from some unified source – some hopeless abstraction like ‘inspiration’. They come from the Multiplicity, from actions, thoughts, beliefs, enthusiasms, from all the ‘I’s working in consort, disidentifying from any kind of satiation. In Iris Murdoch’s Message to the Planet over-excited Marcus says, “I must now rest from multiplicity and from the frenzy & agitation of thinking. What matters more is a state of being…” One that rests in equanimity would do. Operating with an ‘even mind’, able to note what’s going on. Takes time for the soul to settle to rest.
When identified with, all forms of satiation contaminate a current state of being. There’s a need for just letting things happen, acceptance, and the long haul into Meta-I with its ability to tolerate ambiguity.