The human mind, much like our stomachs and other vital organs, possesses a specific nature with specific needs. In 1951, a group of researches at McGill University conducted a series of experiments that became famous under the title of “Sensory Deprivation.”
The experiments observed the behavior of people in isolation in attempt to fully eliminate the sensations of touch, sight and hearing. The subjects were placed in a small, sound-proof room and wore goggles that admitted only diffuse light. In addition, they wore heavy gloves and had to lay in bed for three days to restrict their motion.
The results concluded the following: (1) subjects lost complete sense of time, (2) dissociated from reality, (3) difficultly or impossible to concentrate, (4) unable to tell the difference between sleeping and dreaming and (5) some spoke of losing control of their consciousness. Although the psychologists running the experiment concluded that no theoretical conclusions can be drawn, the results seem to verify that: human consciousness requires constant activity in the form of constant changing sensory stimuli.
Effects of Sensory Deprivation
Most people, if not all, have heard the saying “mind over matter,” which is meant to refer to our ability to use our mind to overcome physical limitations. Our mind is what enables us to overcome difficulties but is also what allows us to enjoy the pleasures of life. Anyone who’s had a drunken night out can attest to the fact that the loss of control of one’s mind is one of the worst experiences. Despite knowing this people still abuse and starve their mind in a manner they wouldn’t dare do to their hair or even fingernails. They know these things have a specific identity and must be maintained either by combing or trimming. However when it comes to the mind we believe it’s capable of overcoming anything.
Experiments like the above mentioned show that our senses are our point of contact with reality. If sensory deprivation has such serious consequences, then what about conceptual deprivation? I believe the consequences of the latter are just as serious as the former. Why it doesn’t receive the significance that it should is because most academics and intellectuals don’t agree that human consciousness requires a conceptual mode of functioning or simply gaze over it if they do attach some importance to it.
Conceptual thinking is understanding a problem (in reality) by identifying patterns and integrating new information into your framework to make it more accurate (rationalizing). The idea to separate the two can be traced back to Immanuel Kant who divorced reason from reality. What resulted were two kinds of people: (1) those who chose reason, abandoning reality and (2) those who chose reality, abandoning reason.
Philosophy which is a science that studies the fundamental aspects of existence is meant to provide humans with a comprehensive view of life. This view enables us to have a frame of reference – a perspective – for all our actions. And it is this view that tells us about the nature of the universe (metaphysics); the means by which we go about acquiring knowledge in this world (epistemology); and the standards by which we choose our values and act in the world (ethics). Kantian philosophers, by separating reason from reality, reduced philosophy to Existentialism, which mainly consists of pointing to modern philosophy and claiming: “if this is reason, to hell with it!” Although this may seem innocent, the fallout essentially taught us:
- Reality is unknowable
- Certainty is impossible
- Truth is what works
What remained at the end of this was not a better understanding of reality or a more comprehensive view of life, but a dismissal of philosophy on the grounds that it is empty of true content. In short, it surrendered philosophy (foundation of knowledge) and put it in the hands of Pragmatists who believe reality is an indeterminate flux which can be anything people want it to be. Logical Positivists who claim that ‘existence’ and ‘reality’ are meaningless terms and that man can be certain of nothing ut the sensory perceptions of the immediate moment. And Linguistic Analysts who declare that reality is not even concrete objects but words that have no specific referents, but mean whatever people want them to mean.
Education Since Kant
John Dewey, the father of modern education in the United States was against teaching theoretical (conceptual) knowledge, instead he preached that concrete or practical action be implemented in the form of class projects. There are two different methods of learning: (1) by memorizing and (2) by understanding. Memorizing belongs to the perceptual level (visual or auditory) which is achieved by means of repetition and concrete bound association, i.e., if I pull this lever then food comes out. The second method of learning – by understanding – means to focus on and isolate the content of a particular subject in attempt to establish a relationship between previously known information and integrate it with existing components of other subjects. Integration is the crucial piece of understanding.
Dewey himself agreed that “understanding facts and truths is so exclusively an individual affair the it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning.” (John Dewey, The School and Society.) Modern educators proclaim the importance of developing children’s individuality, yet teach them to conform to groups. Their method of teaching ignores the conceptual development and confines learning to a systematic process of memorizing facts and dates. They are by implication taught that there is no objective reality that the mind must learn to perceive correctly. Reality for them is an indeterminate flux that can be anything the ‘group’ wants it to be. From a young age, memorizing becomes the dominant method of mental functioning and conformity to a group is the salvation in life.
By the time they reach college, the mind is in a state of complete bewilderment because they have never learned to conceptualize. That is to say, the ability to identify, organize and integrate the content of the mind. Instead, their life to date has been a collection of experiences, but they cannot tell exactly what their true meaning is. This collection of unidentified perceptual impressions creates a state of paralysis, since they are unable to conceptualize the cognitive material into coherent models as they acquired it.
As adults we must use concepts to live. What’s frustrating is that such people use concepts by a child’s perceptual method. This means they use them as ‘concretes’ -without context. Their only context is what is immediately given in the heat of the moment. The concepts that they do hold in their mind refer to a patchwork of memorized responses, habitual drives and the reactions of other people, which represent the content of their mind at that moment in time. Ideas have no reality and nothing is truly ‘real’ unless it is immediately given in the moment.
The Results of Conceptual Deprivation
By removing the ability to think conceptually we are left with the primitive mode of mental functioning. At first glance this makes sense because human consciousness requires constant activity in the form of constant changing sensory stimuli. So unless something is immediately given to us in the present, existence cannot be attached to it. There’s no need for reason to be attached to reality (thanks to Kant), since what is real is based on what the ‘group’ says is real.