How strongly are we influenced by what we hear, what we see, and what we experience without ever actually giving the matter direct thought? Is there such a thing as an original thought anymore or is everything merely a re-interpretation of what someone else created?
The larger question, though, is to what degree we are all influenced by the more subtle aspects of our environment? We go through the day with music playing in our ears, but we aren’t consciously listening to the songs. We read various headlines and snippets of stories without paying particular attention to their source. We see ads and commercials almost everywhere we look, but can’t tell someone what product was being sold. How much of what we experience is sticking?
Memory is difficult to quantify and is an extremely large field of scientific study. Just about the time scientists and doctors think they have a complete picture of the situation, there is even more adding to the constantly increasing bulk of information regarding what we remember, why we remember, and how much we remember. Midst all this ongoing research, though, one thing is for certain: we are all affected by the experience of our environment.
Kat and I were recently re-conversing along a topic that is fun to consider: what would a person such as one of the country’s founding fathers think were they to suddenly be transported into modern America? While there would unquestionably be a high amount of astonishment, and perhaps even fear of outright sorcery, one thing almost for certain is that they would experience sensory overload. We have so very much going on around us that our brains are required to process external information almost 24/7. There is little time to relax, to absorb, or to ponder because of the near-constant barrage of new information coming at us.
So, how do we know what part of our consciousness is us, original, new, having never existed prior to this moment, and how much is simply a re-manufacturing of material recycled from all our experiences and the things that influence us? There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on the topic.
National Public Radio’s Ashish Ranpura writes:
Fundamentally, memory represents a change in who we are. Our habits, our ideologies, our hopes and fears are all influenced by what we remember of our past. At the most basic level, we remember because the connections between our brains’ neurons change; each experience primes the brain for the next experience, so that the physical stuff we’re made of reflects our history like mountains reflect geologic eras. Memory also represents a change in who we are because it is predictive of who we will become. We remember things more easily if we have been exposed to similar things before, so what we remember from the past has a lot to do with what we can learn in the future.
Consider the image above. At first glance, it appears to be a double-exposure, what happens when the shutter is opened more than once onto the same piece of film. This is a digital image, though, and what we are seeing is very similar to what our brains must at time experience: an over-abundance of information. Taken at ISO 100, the shutter was open a quarter of a second with a wide-open aperture of f/2.8. The image appears to be doubly exposed because it was left open to an excessive amount of information. As a result: everything is blurred.
So it is with our lives. Very little of our experience is clearly defined. We are so inundated with information that even our own memories can’t be trusted to be accurate. Our very lives are blurred to the point of not being sure who we really are. Are we individuals, or are we a conglomerate of our experiences?
Perhaps we need to step away more often. Psychologists have been telling us for several years now that having quiet time, alone, totally disconnected from all the unending madness of the world, is critical to our development, if not our sanity. Most people try to “get away” perhaps once or twice a year on something called a vacation, but too often even those attempts end up being little more than exchanging one set of overwhelming experiences for another. We rush to get in as much “vacation” as possible before having to go back to work and, as a result. our brains get no rest.
Here’s the kicker: we control, for the most part, how much we experience. We’re the ones who spend hours on social media, keep earbuds glued to our ears all day, watch endless hours of television or streaming media. Little is actually being forced upon us. The blurriness of our lives is of our own doing.
So perhaps, this weekend, we step away for a while. The weather should clear up a bit this afternoon, so step away. Go for a walk in the woods. Sit for an hour or so beside a babbling brook. Take a nap. Better yet, take two. Eliminate all the experiences manufactured by someone else and take some time to create your own; do something that is totally you.
We might be surprised at just how much more focus we have come Monday if we spend more of our weekends defining our own lives.