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After returning from a year-long hiatus to the United Kingdom and continental Europe, I thought it would be prudent to share my experiences. Having caught the travel bug several years ago when visiting the UK for the first time, a year long overseas working holiday seemed like a dream come true. What I didn’t envisage was the effects of this experience on cognitions, specifically, the feelings of displacement, disorientation and dissatisfaction. In this article I aim to examine the effects of a changing environment on the human perceptual experience, as it relates to overseas, out-group exposure and the psychological mechanisms underlying these cognitive fluctuations.

It seems that the human need to belong runs deeper than most would care to admit. Having discounted any possibility of ‘homesickness’ prior to arrival in the UK, I was surprised to find myself unwittingly (or perhaps conforming to unconscious social expectation – but we aren’t psychoanalysts here!) experiencing the characteristic symptomatology of overall depression, including sub-signs of negative affect, longing for a return home and feelings concurrent with social ostracism. This struck me as odd, in that if one is aware of an impending event, surely this awareness predisposes one to a lesser effect simply through mental preparation and conscious deflection of the expected symptoms. The fact that negative feelings were still experienced despite such awareness causes an alternative etiology for the phenomenon of homesickness. Indeed, it offers a unique insight into the human condition; at a superficial level our dependency on consistency and familiarity, and at a deeper, more fundamental level, a possible interpretation of underlying cognitive processes involved in making sense of the world and responding to stimuli.

Taken at face value, a change in an individual’s usual physical and social environment displays the human reliance on group stability. From an evolutionary perspective, the prospect of travel to new and unfamiliar territories (and potential groups of other humans) is a altogether risky affair. On the one hand, the individual (or group) could possibly face death or injury through anthropogenic means or from the physical environment. On the other hand, a lack of change reduces stimulation genetically (through interbreeding with biologically related group members), cognitively (reduced problem solving, mental stagnation once initial challenges relating to the environment are overcome) and socially (exposure to familiar sights and sounds reduces the capacity for growth in language and, ipsofacto, culture). In addition, the reduction of physical resources through consumption and degradation of the land via over-farming (hunting) is another reason for moving beyond the confines of what is safe and comfortable. As the need for biological sustenance outranks all other human requirements (according to Maslow’s hierarchy), inductively it seems plausible that this could be the main motivating factor why human groups migrate and risk everything for the sake of exploring the unconquered territories of terra incognito. 

The mere fact that we do, and have (as shown throughout history) uprooted our familiar ties and trundled off in search of a better existence seems to make the aforementioned argument a moot point. It is not something to be debated, it is merely something that humans just do. Evolution favours travel, with the potential benefits outweighing the risks by far. The promise of greener pastures on the other side is almost enough to guarantee success. The cognitive stimulation such travel brings may also improve the future chances of success in this operation through learnt experiences and the conquering of challenges, as facilitated by human ingenuity.

But what of the social considerations when travelling? Are our out-group prejudices so intense that the very notion of travel to unchartered waters causes waves of anxiety? Are we fearing the unknown, our ability to adapt and integrate or the possibility that we may not make it out alive and survive to propagate our genes? Is personality a factor in predicting an individual’s performance (in terms of adaptation to the new environment, integration with a new group and success at forging new relationships)? From personal experience, perhaps a combination of all these factors and more.

We can begin to piece together a rough working model of travel and its effects on an individual’s social and emotional stability/wellbeing. The change in a social and physical environment seems to predict the activation of certain evolutionary survival mechanisms that are mediated by several conditions of the travel undertaken. Such conditions could involve; similarity of the target country to the country of origin (in terms of culture, language, ethnic diversity, political values etc),  social support to the individual (group size when travelling, facilities to make contact with group members left behind), personality characteristics of the individual (impulsive, extroverted vs introverted, attachment style, confidence) and cognitive ability to integrate and adapt (language skills, intelligence, social ability). Thus we have a (predicted) linear relationship whereby an increase in the degree of change (measured on a multitude of variables such as physical characteristics, social aspects, perceptual similarities) from the original environment to the target environment causes a resultant change in the psychological distress of the individual (either increased or decreased dependent upon the characteristics of the mediating variables).

Perceptually, travel also seems to have an effect on the salience and characteristics of the experience. In this instance we have deeper cognitive processes that activate which influence the human sensory experience on a fundamental level. The model employed here is one of stimulus-response, handed down through evolutionary means from a distant ancestor. Direct observation of perceptual distortion while travelling is apparent when visiting a unique location. Personally, I would describe the experience as an increase in arousal to one of hyper-vigilance. Compared to subsequent visits to the same location, the original seems somehow different in a perceptual sense. Colours, smells, sounds and tastes are all vividly unique. Details are stored in memory that are ignored and discounted after the first event. In essence, the second visit to a place seems to change the initial memory. It almost seems like a different place.

While I am unsure as to whether this is experienced by anyone apart from myself, evolutionarily it makes intuitive sense. The automation of a hyper-vigilant mental state would prove invaluable when placed in a new environment. Details spring forth and are accentuated without conscious effort, thus improving the organism’s chances of survival. When applied to modern situations, however, it is not only disorientating, but also very disconcerting (at least in my experience).

Moving back to social aspects of travel, I have found it to be both simultaneously a gift and a curse. Travel has enabled an increased understanding and appreciation of different cultures, ways of life and alternative methods for getting things done. In the same vein, however, it has instilled a distinct feeling of unease and dissatisfaction with things I once held dear. Some things you simply take for granted or fail to take notice of and challenge. In this sense, exposure to other cultures is liberating; especially in Europe where individuality is encouraged (mainly in the UK) and people expect more (resulting in a greater number of opportunities for those that work hard to gain rewards and recognition). The Australian way of life, unfortunately, is one that is intolerant of success and uniqueness. Stereotypical attitudes are abundant, and it is frustrating to know that there is a better way of living out there.

Perhaps this is one of the social benefits of travel; the more group members that do it increases the chances of changing ways of life towards more tolerant and efficient methods. Are we headed towards a world-culture where diversity is replaced with (cultural) conformity? Is this ethically viable or warranted? Could it do more harm than good? It seems to me that there would be some positive aspects for a global conglomerate of culture. Then again, the main attraction of travel lies in the experience of the foreign and unknown. To remove that would be to remove part of the human longing for exploration and a source of cognitive, social and physical stimulation. Perhaps instead we should encourage travel in society’s younger generations, exposing them to such experiences and encouraging internal change based on better ways of doing things. After all, we are the ones that will be running the country someday.

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Many of us take the capacity to sense the world for granted. Sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing combine to paint an uninterrupted picture of the technicolour apparition we call reality. Such lucid representations are what we use to define objects in space, plan actions and manipulate our environment. However, reality isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Namely, our role in defining the universe in which we live is much greater than we think. Humanity, through the use of sensory organs and the resulting interpretation of physical events, succeeds in weaving a scientific tapestry of theory and experimentation. This textile masterpiece may be large enough to ‘cover all bases’ (in terms of explaining the underlying etiology of observations), however it might not be made of the right material. With what certainty do scientific observations carry a sufficient portion of objectivity? What role does the human mind and its modulation of sensory input have in creating reality? What constitutes objective fact and how can we be sure that science is ‘on the right track’ with its model of empirical experimentation? Most importantly, is science at the cusp of an empirical ‘dark age’ where the limitations of perception fundamentally hamper the steady march of theoretical progress? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

The main assumption underlying scientific methodology is that the five sensory modalities employed by the human body are, by and large, uniformly employed. That is, despite small individual fluctuations in fidelity, the performance of the human senses is mostly equal. Visual acuity and auditory perception are sources of potential variance, however the advent of certain medical technologies has circumnavigated and nullified most of these disadvantages (glasses and hearing aids, respectively). In some instances, such interventions may even improve the individual’s sensory experience, superseding ‘normal’ ranges through the use of further refined instruments. Such is the case with modern science as the realm of classical observation becomes subverted by the need for new, revolutionary methods designed to observe both the very big and the very small. Satellites loaded with all manner of detection equipment have become our eyes for the ultra-macro; NASA’s COBE orbiter gave us the first view of early universal structure via detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). Likewise, scanning probe microscopy (SPM) enabled scientists to observe on the atomic scale, below the threshold of visible light. In effect, we have extended and supplemented our ability to perceive reality.

But are these innovations also improving the objective quality of observations, or are we being led into a false sense of security? Are we becoming comfortable with the idea that what we see constitutes what is really ‘out there’? Human senses are notoriously prone to error. In addition, machines are only as good as their creator. Put another way, artificial intelligence has not yet superseded the human ‘home grown’ alternative. Therefore, can we rely on a human-made, artificial extension of perception with which to make observations? Surely we are compounding the innate inaccuracies, introducing a successive error rate with each additional sensory enhancement. Not to mention the interpretation of such observations and the role of theory in whittling down alternatives.

Consensus cannot be reached on whether what I perceive is anything like what you perceive. Is my perception of the colour green the same as yours? Empirically and philosophically, we are not yet at a position to determine with any objectivity whether this question is true. We can examine brain structure and compare regions of functional activity, however the ability to directly extract and record aspects of meaning/consciousness is still firmly in the realms of science-fiction. The best we can do is simply compare and contrast our experiences through the medium of language (which introduces its own set of limitations).As aforementioned, the human sensory experience can, at times, become lost in translation.

Specifically, the ability of our minds to disentangle the information overload that unrelentingly flows through mental channels can wane due to a variety of influences. Internally, the quality of sensory inputs is governed at a fundamental level by biological constraints. Millions of years of evolution has resulted in a vast toolkit of sensory automation. Vision, for example, has developed in such a way as to become a totally unconscious and reflexive phenomenon. The biological structure of individual retinal cells predisposes them to respond to certain types of movement, shapes and colours. Likewise, the organisation of neurons within regions of the brain, such as the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe, processes information with pre-defined mannerisms. In the case of vision, the vast majority of processing is done automatically, thus reducing the overall level of awareness and direct control the conscious mind has over the sensory system. The conclusion here is that we are limited by physical structure rather than differences in conscious discrimination.

The retina acts as the both the primary source of input as well as a first-order processor of visual information In brief, photons are absorbed by receptors on the back wall of the eye. These incoming packets of energy are absorbed by special proteins (rods – light intensity, cones – colour) and trigger action potentials in attached neurons. Low level processing is accomplished by a lateral organisation of retinal cells; ganglionic neurons are able to communicate with their neighbours and influence the likelihood of their signal transmission. Cells communicating in this manner facilitates basic feature recognition (specifically, edges/light and dark discrepancies) and motion detection.

As with all the sensory modalities, information is then transmitted to the thalamus, a primitive brain structure that acts as a communications ‘hub’; its proximity to the brain stem (mid and hind brains) ensures that reflexes are privy to visual input prior to the conscious awareness. The lateral geniculate nucleus is the region of the thalamus which splits incoming visual input into three main signals; (M, P and K). Interestingly, these channels stream inputs into signals with unique properties (eg exclusively colour, motion etc). In addition, the cross lateralisation of visual input is a common feature of human brains. Left and right fields of view are diverted at the optic chiasm and processed on common hemispheres (left field of view from both eyes processed on the right side of the brain). One theory as to why this system develops is to minimise the impact of uni-lateral hemispheric damage – the ‘dual brain’ hypothesis (each hemisphere can act as an independent agent, reconciling and supplementing reductions in function due to damage).

We seem to lazily fall back on these automated subsystems with enthusiasm, never fully appreciating and flexing the full capabilities of sensory appendages. Micheal Frayn, in his book ‘The Human Touch’ demonstrates this point aptly;

“Slowly, as you force yourself to observe and not to take for granted what seems so familiar, everything becomes much more complicated…That simple blueness that you imagined yourself seeing turns out to have been interpreted, like everything else, from the shifting, uncertain material on offer” Frayn, 2006, p26

Of course, we are all blissfully ignorant of these finer details when it comes to interpreting the sensory input gathered by our bodies. The consciousness acts ‘with what it’s got’, without a care as to the authenticity or objectivity of the observations. We can observe this first hand in a myriad of different ways; ways in which the unreal is treated as if it were real. Hallucinations are just one mechanism where the brain is fooled. While we know such things are false, to a degree (depending upon the etiology, eg schizophrenia), such visual disturbances nonetheless are able to provoke physiological and emotional reactions. In summary, the biological (and automated) component of perception very much determines how we react to, and observe, the external world. In combination with the human mind (consciousness), which introduces a whole new menagerie of cognitive baggage, a large amount of uncertainty is injected into our perceptual experience.

Expanding outwards from this biological launchpad, it seems plausible that the qualities which make up the human sensory experience should have an effect on how we define the world empirically. Scientific endeavour labours to quantify reality and strip away the superfluous extras leaving only constitutive and fundamental elements. In order to accomplish this task, humanity employs the use of empirical observation. The segway between biological foundations of perception and the paradigm of scientific observation involves a similarity in sensory limitation. Classical observation was limited by ‘naked’ human senses. As the bulk of human knowledge grew, so too did the need to extend and improve methods of observation. Consequently, science is now possibly realising the limitation of the human mind to digest an overwhelming plethora of information.

Currently, science is restricted by the development of technology. Progress is only maintained through the ingenuity of the human mind to solve biological disadvantages of observation. Finely tuned microscopes tap into quantum effects in order to measure individual atoms. Large radio-telescope arrays link together for an eagle’s eye view of the heavens. But as our methods and tools for observing grow in complexity, so too does the degree of abstract reasoning that is required to grasp the implications of their findings. Quantum theory is one such warning indicator.

Like a lighthouse sweeps the night sky and signals impending danger, quantum physics, or more precisely, humanity’s inability to agree on any one consensus which accurately models reality, could be telling us something. Perhaps we are becoming too reliant on our tools of observation, using them as a crutch in a vain attempt to avoid our biological limitations. Is this a hallmark of our detachment from observation? Quantum ‘spookiness’ could simply be the result of a fundamental limitation of the human mind to internally represent and perceive increasingly abstract observations. Desperately trying to consume the reams of information that result from rapid progress and intense observation, scientific paradigms become increasingly specialised and diverged, increasing the degree of inter-departmental bureaucracy. It now takes a lifetime of training to even grasp the basics of current physical theory, let alone the time taken to dissect observations and truly grasp their essence.

In a sense, science is at a crossroads. One pathway leads to an empirical dead end; humanity has exhausted every possible route of explanation. The other involves either artificial augmentation (in essence, AI that can do the thinking for us) or a fundamental restructuring of how science conducts its business. Science is in danger of information overload; the limitations introduced by a generation of unrelenting technical advancement and increasingly complex tools with which to observe has taken its toll. Empirical progress is stalling, possibly due to a lack of understanding by those doing the observing. Science is detaching from its observations at an alarming rate, and if we aren’t careful, in danger of loosing sight of what the game is all about. The quest for knowledge and understanding of the universe in which we live.