Issue #28, 11/18/2006
The End of Rumination
Family Court Philosopher
If you were a cow, you could enjoy every meal twice! First, you would eat it, then you would regurgitate it later at your convenience and chew it some more. "Chewing her cud" is an important part of a cow's natural digestive process.
This is also a useful metaphor for consciousness. You can have a real experience in the outside world, but then when things are quiet, you can regurgitate it again in your mind and chew it over some more. It is healthy to relive any new experience and think about all the implications of it. This assures that you get the most nutrition from each stimulating event.
When I go to a movie, for example, and the story is fairly deep, I will think about the film for days or weeks thereafter. I will re-chew it in my mind, considering its nuances and how I would respond to the circumstances portrayed. I might even think about how I would change the movie if I were making it. It usually takes a month or two before I am ready to see another.
This process of regurgitation and reprocessing—in both cows and people—is called rumination, and it is an opportunity that is sadly lacking in modern life for both of our species.
Most of the cattle that we eventually eat are now force-fed grain rather than being allowed to graze on natural grasses. The bovines that become our Big Macs are crammed into muddy, grassless feed lots where they are usually fed corn. There is little roughage in their diet, so they rarely regurgitate and chew their cud.
The goal of the feed lot operators is to pass as much high-density food as possible through the animal to fatten them up quickly. This destroys the natural ecology of their digestive system and must be painful for them. The cattle survive long enough for slaughter only because they are given massive quantities of antibiotics and other medicines to counter the effects of the intense diet.
In the modern world, we raise our children pretty much the same way. They are overstimulated by a continuous stream of high-density experiences to the point where they have no time to think about what has happened to them. Television, movies, video games, sports, music, internet activities and even excessive reading can drive away any possibility of rumination. Their brains are fattened up quickly, with lots of synaptic connections formed at an early age, but it is a shallow form of growth. There has to be something important missing.
Something called conscience.
In the modern world, people are always moving, moving, moving. They are rarely thinking about the practical and philosophical implications of what they do. If they see a distressing news story on television, they think, "Isn't that sad," but a few minutes later that story is wiped from consciousness by yet another multimedia experience... and another, and another.
Modern media bring us a constant stream of intense emotions that are force-fed into us one after another. Our processing of these experiences is cursory at best. We react emotionally to the immediate stimulus—by laughing or gasping—but we never have a chance to integrate the experience into our whole being.
It is like living through a war. Traumatic things happen—buddies get killed and you kill others—but you have to push the emotions aside for now and continue with the battle. Unresolved issues become stockpiled in the brain. Ideally, you should take some time to deal with them, but in the modern world you will probably never have the chance.
When you become attached to a character on TV and that character dies, this is real trauma to you. When you go to an intense science fiction movie where the hero fights to save the universe and only barely succeeds, maybe you need some therapy afterwards. At least you need to analyse privately what the experience means in your own life. If you get even partially caught up in the fantasy, then the emotions and experience become real for you, and you shouldn't just brush them aside and move instantly to the next set of sensations.
The result of continuous emotional and sensory overstimulation is a kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many intense things have happened to you, but you have never had a chance to integrate them into your personality. As a result, your brain is a mess. You may have a lot of synaptic connections, but they are chaotic, self-contradictory ones, not organized and unified.
Whenever the average person finds themselves alone with time on their hands, they panic. "What do I do?" People call this "boredom," but it is really the withdrawal symptoms from the addiction of overstimulation.
Imagine going a whole day without television, radio, internet, newspapers, books, music, alcohol or caffeine. Can you do it? Can you go for even an hour without them? What happens when you turn all these channels off? How do you feel?
Anxious? If so, what is the source of that anxiety?
Aren't you afraid of being alone with your own thoughts? You've stockpiled all sorts of traumas—both real and virtual—and when you are alone, without distractions, they threaten to come flooding back on you.
For most people raised by media, any genuine quiet time causes distress. They have little experience ruminating on things, so they don't have the discipline and "thinking skills" to deal with whatever pops into their head.
Cut off temporarily from outside stimulation, they desperately try to get it back. A television not turned on is like a bottle of whiskey tempting an alcoholic. It is hard not to open the bottle.
The effect on society of this widespread addiction is massive passivity. A nation of stimulation addicts is a nation of do-nothing sheep. People can get upset about injustices during the few minutes they are displayed on television, BUT THEY NEVER ACTUALLY DO ANYTHING ABOUT THEM. Overstimulated people simply have no time for action, and the quality of their lives tends to deteriorate as routine mental maintenance stops getting done.
The same applies to families. When the television is always turned on or the kids are always umbilically connected to the Nintendo, there is no time for family life. Parents have no real opportunity to raise their children and teach them how to think.
This is why I favor carrying a sledgehammer at all times and smashing the hell out of these media devices whenever you encounter them. A big-screen high-definition stereophonic home theatre system is not a temptation if you simply don't have one or it is no longer operable due to vandalism.
Can you raise a child without television? Yes, you can. It's been done before, but it is a lot easier to remove the device altogether than to try to dole it out. Does a kid need an X-Box for Christmas? No, he doesn't. The boy next door already has one, which is more than enough stimulation for the neighborhood.
Others may call you cruel and might even report you to the child abuse hotline, but somebody has to draw the line on overstimulation.
Somebody has to be a parent here.
Links and Information
“Thank you for going public with your thoughts.” —Learning 3/9/10 (rating=3)
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Page Started: 11/18/06