Lack of Sensory Stimulation / Winter Peril

Just when I think that there’s nothing left to “think about” –

Winter is a perilous time for my “moods” or “affect”, to be official. The weather has changed from sunny and warm to sudden cold; it’s the season of futzing with the heating system in my old house. One gas heater sans blower; convection only.  It puts out plenty of heat in one room – the kitchen. It’s up to me to devise ways to move that hot air around the house with fans and a small auxiliary heater that I carry with me to whichever room I will be spending time in. That’s the computer room most mornings. I don’t linger in bed, but wake up ready to go. One cup of coffee and I’m typing away on whatever topic “popped” into my conscious awareness when I woke up.

This morning it was a question of “dealing with” the confines of winter. Each year our winter season arrives on an unknown trajectory: it’s true that in this high altitude desert, in southwestern Wyoming, a “season” in the ordinary sense doesn’t mean much, except that other than the ratio of light to dark hours keeps shrinking toward that magic date, the winter solstice, when “winter” officially begins. I don’t understand that at all: the solstice for me marks “mid-winter” – the turning point when “daylight” begins its return to bearable length. A minute or two per day, but that accumulates fast: by January, the expanding “light” is obvious. This process might be compared to myths worldwide in cold (non-equatorial) climates; the “death and resurrection” of the sun god, despite heated houses, 4 WD vehicles, food availability, and holidays for distraction.

It usually takes me about a week to adjust to the “death of the sun”. During that interval I “freeze” in a state that feels like a prelude to hibernation; if I could only sleep away the winter like a bear. Of course, this “attitude” must end, and I begin piling up “projects” to do: reviewing all my photos (there must be some I can delete), restock the pantry (there is but one grocery store, far across town, which may be inaccessible in truly bad weather) review and update or delete blog posts, go back to research topics I set aside, clean house – an uncivilized – mess after ignoring the consequences of a windy-dusty-sandy-muddy world that doesn’t stop at the threshold. Prepare for any weather conditions that will arise: boots, hats, gloves, a parka and lesser jackets – layering is the way to go. My neighbor actually replaced the fuel pump in my Dodge Ram truck: Wow! My hero…a huge weight off my anxious state of preparations.

ALL THIS IS DEPRESSING! But why, specifically? The “winter dilemma” has plagued me my entire life. Did my distress simply begin because growing up in Chicagoland, winter meant enduring months and months of bitter confinement? I began plotting my escape to “The West” after a winter trip to Colorado revealed a sunny, blue-skied land, with most of the snowfall where it belonged (on the mountain peaks and slopes), and relief from the prison of trees at home in the Midwest that negated an open horizon, except along the shore of lake Michigan.

In meaningful ways, weather, landscape and climate have (dictated, guided, informed?) my choices and decisions above and beyond other considerations. Life at it’s best has occurred in those intervals when optimal physical parameters have coincided with opportunities for “self-expression” – whether or not self-discovery was provided for in the context of a “job-job” or by a nomadic episode that defied concerns about “being normal”. Normal only ever concerned me in financial terms; if I could come up with funding for my “eccentric” ways, social normality was quickly extinguished, and I could indulge in personal freedom, which means living in the “timeless” time frame of “now”.  If one lives “now” the stupidity of most human ideas and actions becomes obvious and it becomes impossible to reconnect with social illusions and delusions.

So – here I am! Another winter, another adjustment; but the question remains, why do I react this way? The “could be” answers are still apparent: simple physical “screw ups” in circadian rhythm due to the clockwork of decreasing light; Asperger sensory eccentricity; bipolar “moodiness” triggered by environmental change or speculation that my mood is one consequence of non-adaptation by ancient ancestors who migrated to northern Europe, but who lacked the memory or sense to head back south.

I think that I’ve finally pinpointed “the source” of my physical discontent: Sensory deprivation! It’s a curious dilemma: too much “human” stimulation (noise, chatter, social annoyance, discordant fundamental views of “being human” – etc.) leads to “pain” and retreat; a safe little house in a quiet town; control of human exposure. But winter flips the problem over. There is too little of the stimulation that I crave; visual-spatial opportunity is still there in winter’s cold contrast between snow, frost and ice.  Deep shadows and shimmering blue sky beckon – an entirely new landscape arises from the familiar one.

Actually, I take more photographs in “bad weather” episodes and during environmental change created by geologic processes, than in our protracted and bleak summer of overexposed and colorless dead plants; of uniform yellow grasses and bleached rock.

It’s just more difficult to “get out there” when sunlight disappears between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., truncating the long slow interplay of land and sky that is summer’s gift to the human eye and brain. Concerns over travel into the countryside are very real, even with 4WD. The consequences of “getting stuck” can range from hours of hard labor to get unstuck, to a hefty bill for tow truck service (if you’re within live cell phone range), to hypothermia, frostbite or death. That is, one mistake in judgement and / or luck can be a huge factor in having or not having a really bad day. This is of increasing concern especially as one ages: the reality of predicaments that require adequate mental and physical response has been drilled into memory by those very challenges having occurred frequently, but when young and stupidly optimistic. Diminished capabilities are real and must be accounted for in daily calculations concerning physical activity.

There is also more to this: the “spatial” element. Perpetual restlessness has two solutions; either “move around a lot” or find an intellectual focus that essentially makes it possible to “ignore” the lack of sensory stimulation for hours or sometimes days. However awkward, this “tension” between mental focus and physical movement is necessary to thinking – perhaps for a visual person this is merely fact: reality as “received and processed and ultimately realized” requires physical (sensory) sensitivity and fulfillment: how could a “concrete” visual thinker function otherwise?

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This “type” of human experience WAS TYPICAL in pre-modern wild humans who did not rely on word thinking for their survival. Sound communication was not “language” but a component of sensory reaction to activity: what “sound” does a particular bird or animal make that reveals its behavior? What sound can “we” assign to information that is valuable when conveying such information is impossible due to separation by distance or obstacles to sight?  Which sounds are attuned to the body’s natural functioning, eliciting a powerful positive or negative response in other humans? None of these communications require words; in fact, in the context of hunting, scavenging, and gathering, “human noise” is a detriment to success, whereas understanding animal behavior, especially “sound behavior” and “squelching” verbal compulsion is quite a task for many hunters today.

How many hunting trips are ruined because Uncle Ralph couldn’t keep his mouth shut, talked incessantly and crashed through the underbrush like a deranged modern social human without “a lick of common sense”?

How many “hyperactive” kids are merely moving because it’s how visual thinkers acquire data; experience spatial relationships that “put that data” into real contexts; and therefore motion teaches that child, not only how to “operate the body” but also what he or she needs to know to form a “sensory understanding” of its environment?

Today’s visual stimulation: the unwrapping, cleaning and placement of antique-vintage ornaments on two tiny Xmas trees; there will be more trees, since I’ve been collecting ornaments for many years.

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2 thoughts on “Lack of Sensory Stimulation / Winter Peril

  1. I too have always found this time of year incredibly difficult. As a child with no responsibilities, it wasn’t as noticeable but I definitely felt the mood change. These days I’ve stretched myself pretty thin year round so the added complexities of winter push me almost to my breaking point. It doesn’t get brutally cold here but it does rain sometimes for a month straight, sometimes for two with only a handful of days with sunlight. When the sun shines I feel like a completely different person.

    I wonder about Northern people. My father came from Northern Finland but hated the cold. He typically went to Mexico or Hawaii every winter. At one point in history before strict borders were in place were people perhaps more nomadic? Was wintering in warm places at all common for early people? I guess it really depended on how barbaric your neighbors were. I know the Sami were somewhat nomadic but they seemed to stay quite far north (my surname is of Sami origin but I have yet to learn the link if there is one).

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    • It’s a curious manifestation of “something” but difficult to pin down. I remember disliking winter when young because it’s so inconvenient! I could not understand why anyone would “choose” to live in such dreadful conditions. It was as if half the year was wasted living indoors, piling on clothing, shoveling walks and getting the car stuck – or worse. Of course I didn’t comprehend that many people have no choice due to family, job or inertia. Still, someone had to “migrate” to cold climates to start with – there were many migrations into and out of Europe – many nomads; but it’s a way of life that is at present very discouraged and even prohibited. Just like migrating animals whose territories are cut off and reduced by urban humans. Maybe it’s simply individual preference?

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