Cringe No. 2 - PERCEPTION - 2021
Creative Project, November
I hope you’re reading this in a warm and cosy sanctuary, wherever that might be for you, fighting off the seasonal melancholy which seeps into our lives at this time of year.
Perhaps you like your winter hibernation? Perhaps you’ve managed to replace your fear of darkness with curiosity about the mysterious unknown?
As we’ve been heading towards the darker days of the year, we wanted to reflect on all things we associate with the cold winter months: discomfort, alienation, longing, and fear - but also: mystery, dreams, and costume.
So much of our daily discomfort is triggered by uncertainty (p. 13-14), or shaped by the prejudice of others (p. 61-64). A little bit of self-interrogation or the way we examine the world around us can go a long way to change our ideas about our capital-s Selves, what it means to exist (p. 17-20) and equally, what it would mean to cease to do so (p. 59).
Welcome to the Perception issue, which includes artwork and writing reflecting on identity, belonging, death and so much more.
We hope you dive in and find out that while we all feel alienated by the world and even ourselves at times, at least we can find connection in this commonality, even amidst all our fears.
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Essay for Cringe No. 2
Does it matter whether I know I exist?
Although it feels like a distant dream, I still remember the first time I realised that I exist. My infant self was staring at the mirror hung up in my childhood home’s hallway, acknowledging a reflection which curiously stared back at me. Of course, it wasn’t myself I was looking at, but rather what I identified as myself reflected in the mirror. During this moment which French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan might have diagnosed as my - quite literal - mirror stage, I thought about how truly bizarre it was that I, out of all possible other Is that could have replaced my reflection in the mirror, happened to exist. As Lacan would have predicted, the following years I shaped my sense of self and accompanying ego, reinforcing it with the help of objects I acquired, people I met, and experiences I turned into memories. Memories which I keep recalling to instill a sense of continuity in my character even though recalling those memories is like a lifelong game of Chinese whispers: adding or takingw away details with every reminiscence. If my perception of a coherent identity is really as fickle as science would have me believe, telling me that the cells in my body are replaced every seven to ten years, how can it be that I feel like I still carry my infant self from all those years ago with me? If both cases could be true at the same time - the non-existence of my infant self’s body cells and my continuous identification with her - does it even matter if I’m certain that I or my metaphysical self exist at all?
In a popular Ted Talk by British professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience Anil Seth, he argues that our brains hallucinate what we perceive as conscious reality. It’s just that we more or less regulate reality through our senses, even when they are sometimes distorted, leading to what we know as illusions. If hallucinations are uncontrolled perceptions of ourselves and our environment, our conscious reality has to consist of controlled hallucinations, he argues. We interpret the world around us through language and cultural internalisations, filtering out what’s useful for us to take in or not. “We’re hallucinating all the time, including right now,” Seth tells the audience before delivering his punchline. “It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, we call that reality.”
In an experiment he conducted using a virtual reality programme, a participant is seeing an arm positioned in a way that looks like it belongs to their body. What the study found was that when the virtual arm was glowing red and back in time with their heartbeat, they had a stronger sense of perceiving it as their own than when it was glowing out of time. This shows the existence of what he calls interoception: Experiences of our body are deeply grounded in perceiving it from within, and our brains constantly receive sensory signals from our insides to inform it about the state of our organs and bodily health. This kind of perception and regulation of the internal state of our body helps keep us alive, as he explains: “Experiences of being an embodied self are more about control and regulation than figuring out what’s there.”
But what happens when you deny the existence of your physical body? A neuropsychiatric condition called Cotard’s syndrome creates the nihilistic delusion that an individual is either dead or immortal. When people diagnosed with this syndrome negate the self, this can have fatal consequences, sometimes even leading to self-starvation. Others might believe they have lost their blood or internal organs. The syndrome reduces or diminishes an individual’s internal awareness. It’s still unclear to pinpoint what causes this level of psychosis, but the delusions might come from misfiring in the area of the brain that recognises faces, and in the amygdala, which helps us associate emotions in a recognised face. People with Cotard’s syndrome don’t recognise their own face when staring at the mirror, almost like a reverse mirror stage. They’re completely alienated from their environment and themselves, despite the fact that the world hasn’t in fact changed, and rely on the interference from others such as doctors, family, and medication to be brought back to a shared reality.
Our reliance on others starts even before our first meeting with the medical system.
Psychiatrist Dr. Eric Berne’s ‘stroke-hunger’, a theory within modern psychology, refers to our need for others to recognise us. A stroke refers to a unit of recognition, and a transaction refers to the exchange of these strokes. The main quality of a stroke is that it recognises the being or doing of a person, whether that’s verbally through a compliment or criticism, or nonverbally through a hug or slap across the face. The theory claims we crave receiving and giving strokes to affirm our Self. It also emphasises that we don’t just need a variety of strokes in order to maintain well-being, but even claims that strokes are so crucial to the survival of our existence that people would rather accept negative strokes, such as the aforementioned slap across the face, than no strokes at all. As much as our self-centred world would like us to believe otherwise, we’re more reliant on each other for maintaining our existence than we think.
Perhaps knowing that I exist doesn’t matter as much as recognising that I live in a shared perception of reality with others. While our identities, values, and definitions of wellbeing are in constant flux, we rely on each other’s recognition to exist and survive. Maybe if we stop perceiving ourselves as ontologically distinct from others and the world around us, and recognise that our existences are inevitably interlinked, we might get a chance at saving our shared reality from the current crises of our world; a world which holds so much left to experience - no matter if real or not.
Anil Seth ends his Ted Talk by reminding us: “With a greater sense of understanding comes a greater sense of wonder, and a greater realisation that we are part of and not apart from the rest of nature. And when the end of consciousness comes, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Nothing at all.”