Strolling in a large park one day I was startled by how many people were walking without looking up, or walking in a myopic daze while talking on their “cells,” as we say in shorthand, as if spoken words were paddling through the body from one saltwater lagoon to another.
As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.
But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature…As an antidote I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. As people complain more and more these days, attention spans are growing shorter, and we’ve begun living in attention blinks. More social than ever before, we’re spending less time alone with our thoughts, and even less relating to other animals and nature. Too often we’re missing in action, brain busy, working or playing indoors, while completely unaware of the world around us.
On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unattainium, lies presence, which one doesn’t so much take as engage in, like a romance, and without which one can live just fine, but not thrive.
Diane Ackerman, Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?, New York Times, June 10, 2012