Sunday, June 13, 2021

More like Joyce, less like Proust: The Pandemic’s Signal to Noise Paradox.



 

 

It’s June. In the Northeast where I live, the pandemic is over. Here, Covid is a medical management problem and not a public health emergency. I hope it stays this way. I hope this is a cautionary remembrance of things past. 

 

Since a year ago March, when I moved my teaching and practice entirely online, I’ve logged more weekly hours than any time in my career. That’s come with benefits and costs. This is about some of the costs. 


In my consulting and clinical practice, I’d been hearing that production is high, but initiative, improvisation, and creativity are low and nearly everyone complains about Zoom fatigue.  That matched my state of mind.  That, and how many of us felt a bit like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, not clear what day followed the one before.

 

Mid-May, grumpy, spent, I escaped to Provincetown. Immediately I felt much better. I think I’ve learned some lessons. First, maybe foremost, is when to play hooky. 


Provincetown in May 2021 was my second escape from Covid culture. The first, back in October, was the woods and beaches of Chappaquiddick Island.  Then, during one of our Friday conversations, I told Michael Kubovy how different I was feeling from the previous seven months and how this fit with what I’d observed about my clients and students.  I was relaxed and open, my mounting doldrums vanished. Helping me understand my changed state, Michael suggested that except for far less talent, we are generally more like James Joyce than Marcel Proust. We do better when spending our day strolling the streets of Dublin than in bed with shades drawn in a cork lined room.


By now, mid June, the pandemic has lasted long enough to change society, fostering a Covid culture that, while intent on protection, took a toll on those never infected and who did not share the pain or suffer the loss of someone who was. 

 

Some costs are moral and psychological. The pandemic left many in states of languish, and some, victims of acediaits depressive variant. Other costs were political: hostile splits over adherence and resistance to political “biopower” [1]. The public discourse, the rancor on mandated shutdowns and masks that quickly devolved into ‘which side are you on?’.  The incompetent, odious, absurd utterances of Trump that met an under-examined counter to “follow the science”; too often an incoherent collection of methodologies and data promoted by different communities of interest: medical, economic, and academic. Policy and implementation did not fare well. Nor did we. 

 

Social distance and masking took a toll, and there's Zoom. Online, work from home did not happen on a level playing field. Many parents try to restrict their children’s screen time and want them to spend more time playing outside. I’ve come to see the value of that for all of us. 


This is about the condition of folk like me. I don’t have the numbers, but it’s a safe bet I’m not in a minority. So before you roll your eyes, I didn’t have it that bad, not at all; my life and livelihood was never threatened. Knock on wood, I was never sick, not broke, and in a stable relationship. I’m one of the privileged: a senior academic clinical psychologist, mostly home with wife and dogs, with fast reliable ethernet, and no children needing to be home schooled. My concerns are trivial compared to the endangered front line workers, the truly isolated and impoverished, and those overwhelmed by grief, work, or worry.


Here’s some of the circumstances many of my ilk lived with: 


1) Stuck at home, more or less isolated with restricted encounters apart from our affinity groups. 

2) Engaged without handshakes. No collegial pats on the back.  Working, schooling, and shopping online. Living with less surprise and fewer random encounters.  

3) While productive  –– scheduling was easy, the commute gone, people knew where to find us –– we experienced Zoom fatigue: a consequence, I think, of a diminished and restricted ‘sensory ecology’ of a less varied, less novel sensory stimulation that undermined multimodal perception, ‘inter-affectivity’, and empathy.  Facing each other on screen, our engagement was less informed, less moved, by the rhythms of gesture and speech, the ‘dance’ that naturally and ordinarily is part of being in the physical proximity of others [3]. Dancing in harmony invigorates; being held in place, missing the beat, is tiresome.

4) Masks and social distancing are problematic. When we ventured out and tried to connect, but avoided physical closeness with faces masked, our full expression was muffled; was less intimate and empathetic. From trivial inconvenience to severe handicap, verbal behavior is enhanced not only by clear speech but by simultaneous lip reading [4]. Talking together, relaxed and spontaneous, was below par at best.

5) And while out, leaving home, affinity group, and pod behind, we feared contagion and suffered an uncertainty of whether it would ever end [5].


With all this in mind, I think I can throw light on why many of us have been both productive and stuck in a funk.  Why we started cozy but ended irritated in our cocoons. 

 

In a nutshell, here is my premise: To thrive, to experience comfort, satisfaction, and vigor; to improvise, create, and initiate, we need all our senses frequently engaged. We need random, unexpected encounters with the natural, architectural, and social worlds. And here’s the kicker: We need distraction. We need shiny objects pulling our attention away from the task at hand. Keep in mind that what distracts us, what catches our attention, interests us. What actually interests us, what doesn’t go against our grain becomes available for consideration. And that availability might come in handy.

 

Distraction is important, not because we acquire the discipline to ignore it, but in the sense of a metaphorical signal to noise paradox, where the noise enhances the signal by offering additional content and context. (Unless, of course, it is merely distraction. Naps help sort it out.)

 

In particular, akin to a seed crystal, unexpected encounters and distractions are idea nodes: Cognitive and emotional behavior potential that can provide associational connection to the task at hand; something novel we might recognize as significant and decide to pursue. (Of course, we might not. It helps to have the breathing space to think about what we've been thinking about.) I am taking issue with ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ when necessity comes from adversity. Adversity rarely makes us stronger or creative. Mostly it makes us mean, defensive, and closed off.  


Seeking safety in social distance and masks, living our lives on Zoom, the pandemic diminished our encounter with the complexity and nuance of strangers, companions, and our worlds [2].  Our bodies less involved, our empathy strained, we ended up more worn than usual. We could produce but did not thrive. 

 

My remedy is unexpected encounters and distraction coupled with a strong dose of whatever fully engages the senses. And naps. 


  

My friend and esteemed colleague Mark Greenberg alerted me to the Japanese therapeutic practice of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) "for the restorative impact of multi-sensory, natural stimuli."  "The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan" Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y.,  Environ Health Prev Med. 2010;15(1):18-26. doi:10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9


Also consider this study on The Effect of Movement on Cognitive Performance.

 

[1] Michel Foucault’s term for "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (The History of Sexuality 1976, Vol. 1 p. 140).

[2] The Black Lives Matter protests following the constantly televised police murder of George Floyd was a galvanizing distraction for white Americans not accustomed to being victim of police violence.  For many, a wake up significantly informing awareness.  

[3] Concerning difficulties maintaining empathy while employing Zoom, see “Embodied Affectivity: on moving and being moved” Fuchs & Koch (2014) Frontiers in Psychology. And “Degradation, Accreditation, and Rites of Passage” Schwartz (1979) Psychiatry.

[4] See for example, Altieri, N. A., Pisoni, D. B., & Townsend, J. T. (2011). Some normative data on lip-reading skills (L). The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America130(1), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.3593376.

 [5] I’d like to believe I’ve overstated the problem in a blog posting The Affinity Group, the Mask, and the Counter-Progressive Politics of Suffering Alone (Some Reminders from Harry Stack Sullivan).









 



 

 

 


Friday, February 19, 2021

The Affinity Group, the Mask, and the Counter-Progressive Politics of Suffering Alone (Some Reminders from Harry Stack Sullivan)

Totalitarian movements are simply "mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals." Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951.


The confined affinity group and the mask should be left behind if we desire a vibrant cosmopolitan society. With the advent of successful vaccines, coronavirus should become a problem requiring medical management and not a public health emergency.  We'll eventually leave the confinement of our bubble and pod affinity groups, but if masking remains an ordinary part of life, I fear 'same-as-us' identity politics will intensify, inadvertently inviting a dystopian future. Perhaps I'm overstating, but I suspect Fauci and his adherents would like us to remain masked into the foreseeable future. The personal and social costs of the pandemic should not be borne when the crisis is past.

By now we should be familiar with the tragic condition of the quarantined elderly and the hidden agony of the isolated and lonely. We are less familiar with the counter-progressive consequence of segregating the otherwise healthy, maskless only under a shared roof of kin and friends. What happens when they venture out masked and encounter others behind theirs? 

Trump encouraged a virulent populism. But after the crisis passes, will virtue-driven normalization of masking facilitate another version of tribal hostility? From the start of the pandemic to the present, the masked versus the unmasked has triggered rancor.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. Masks, pods and bubbles are vital components for managing a pandemic. But donning the mask and disdain for those who refuse has become, apart from actual health concerns, a badge of the progressive and anti-Trump. I am both.  There are problems lurking here. To the extent masks become a cultural norm, liberal cosmopolitan democracy can be undermined by life less informed by inclusiveness and diversity. When I wonder aloud about this, my well-traveled peers mention the extensive masking in Japan and the alien status of the gaijin

The liberal and progressive ideal of tolerant cosmopolitan community requires understanding and getting along with those different from one’s friends and kin. The liberal ideal requires loosening the natural tribalism of ‘us and them’ and resisting the tendency of ‘us versus them’. Facilitating engagement with people different from ourselves allows this to happen. But when huddled together, without mask only within home and pod –– avoiding the other as contagion –– tribal pathologies of blood and soil, of purity and danger, too easily come out of hiding; are too easily projected onto the mask of the stranger. It doesn’t take a sociologist to point out that our households and pods are generally inhabited by people very similar to ourselves. Folks with our complexion. 

Here’s a darker worry. For many of the financially secure and socially well connected, the lockdowns offered a cozy respite, marred by the annoyance of titrating a comfortable distance from those too much around. In contrast, the lockdowns have been awful for the isolated and lonely. We don’t hear much from them. Today, 35.7 million Americans live alone.   How do you think they are doing? Although we might like to believe adversity brings out the best in us, mostly it makes us mean.

For many people who live alone, the loneliness manageable during ordinary times is now intolerable. When they leave their homes, masked faces make it worse. Harry Stack Sullivan’s observations from 1940’s and 50’s are relevant. In the seminal volume, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, he wrote, “There are good many situations in which lonely people literally lack any experience with things they encounter…. loneliness in itself is more terrible than anxiety.” 

We rely on the acknowledgment of others, from the beloved to the stranger, to cure an otherwise empty heart. Without empathic responsiveness, we become aliens in a world without compassion.  Some need a responsive face more frequently than others. But we all need it. When significantly absent, when hope is replaced by demoralization, our demons and pathologies erupt. The prolonged demoralization of knowing there is no one nearby who truly cares, no one who has your back or understands how you feel can foment depression, rage, and suicide.  In such a world, the most terrible thoughts are not intimately expressed, soothed, or corrected.

Severe loneliness, Sullivan observed, deprived people of the companions needed to “integrate experience” creating defects in the ability to adequately appraise situations apart from wanting relief. It is unsurprising this breeds resentment toward whomever or whatever is held as cause. The masked face is a blank screen where resentment, fear, and anger are easily projected. 

Public masking has gone on for a very long time. When the pandemic began my socially conscious neighbors and most everyone else in my neighborhood wore masks and zigzagged as we crossed paths. We feared contact and avoided lingering and gesturing. I was lonely walking the dogs. But then something happened. A few weeks in, late March early April, I noticed I was deliberately smiling with my eyes, nodding when my sunglasses covered them, and saw my neighbors do the same.  We expressed solidarity as best we could.  But by late October, with the fall and no end in sight, these gestures mostly faded except among those already committed to each other. The sidewalk, crowded or not, became empty. 

I want to be clear.  I have little sympathy for those who feel the mask is a violation of their self-entitlement, an insult provoking “don’t tread on me”, an expression of indifference to the concern of others.  But ask, how do people eventually behave when they’ve been secluded, uncertain, anxious, and nursing whatever prejudice is consistent with what they blame for being locked out of life? And when the time comes, how do they vote?