Entertaining Ourselves to Death: The Supersensorium

Does Art still matter today?

In the vast tubes of the internet, I stumbled across this incredibly thought-provoking long-form essay, “Enter the Supersensorium: The Neuroscientific Case for Art in the Age of Netflix” by neuroscientist Erik Hoel. It is just over 7,000 words (about a 45-minute read), and wades into some dense neuroscientific jungles (gamma-aminobutyric acid neurons, anyone?). Unfortunately, I don’t know many people who will take the time to read something like this.

Further, the article is written from a staunchly anti-theistic framework, relying heavily on a Darwinian model of evolution, and at certain points scoffs at religion as merely a “useful myth,” similar to a pleasing kind of fiction.

That being said, the essay includes many thoughts I found so enlightening that–everything stated above–I still found it fascinating and helpful. Hoel looks at our current experience of the digital ecosystem we all experience, a “supersensorium,” and wonders what our futures may hold. He writes:

In 2018, Nielsen reported that the average American spends eleven hours a day engaged with media…Does anyone believe that this number is going to decrease? The technology that undergirds the supersensorium will only improve. The algorithms will grow more personalized, the experiences will become more salient, and the platforms will get faster in their delivery of content. If this doesn’t seem a problem to you, extrapolate out ten years, when every family has VR goggles in their living room, and then consider ten years after that.

Super Stimulation

What is a “supersensorium”? It is an arena of digital content that relies on “superstimuli,” a kind of sensory overload that hijacks our most primal biological cravings and impulses. “Porn is a superstimuli, giving access to mates the majority would never see. McDonald’s is a superstimuli of umami, fat, and salt.” Social media, he continues, serves as a form of superstimuli, connecting us to a wider range of relationships that would previously have never been conceptually possible. And, what he reflects on most, the TV-shows we spend our evenings and weekends with have now taken their seat in the panoply of the supersensorium, enthralling us like obedient animals. And like porn, and fast-food, and social media, there is a dark realization that this content that preys upon hyper-stimulating experiences may not be good for us. The greasy food may taste incredible, but it is slowly killing us.

He spends a great deal of the essay reflecting on the purpose of dreams and how the mind processes external stimuli. Hoel’s theory for the purpose of dreaming is that dreams provide a sort of simulation of life experiences that help us survive (Should I stand near the edge of this cliff? Should I grab that snake?) by providing a synthetic environment where we can see the consequences of experiences (falling from the cliff; being eaten by a snake). But, dreams are also bizarre and non-sensical in many ways; they do not correspond to our waking reality accurately. This is to prevent us, Hoel posits, from falling victim to what he calls being “overfitted,” where our mind never explores the possibility of scenarios we have yet to experience (what would happen if my home turned into a rocket ship?). Human beings, he argues, need these mental simulations to survive in the world. We naturally crave simulated reality in order to orient ourselves more safely and holistically to external reality.

And what if we could simulate reality not only while dreaming, but while being awake as well?

In a sense, the fictions the entertainment industry (on one end) and artists (on the other) are in the business of producing consumable, portable, durable dreams. Novels, movies, TV shows—it is easy for us to suspend our disbelief because we are biologically programmed to surrender it when we sleep. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a TV episode traditionally lasts about the same thirty minutes in length as the average REM event.

So, if we are biologically programmed to immerse ourselves in a fictional world, what happens when we fabricate super stimulating fiction? Fiction that is built with the methodical scrutiny of multi-billion dollar production companies utilizing artificial intelligence, A/B testing, and cognitive psychology to create the perfect cocktail of lighting, color, camera angles, explosions, innuendo, sex, jokes and narratives to create content that will be as consumable and addictive as possible? You get binge-culture. The supersensorium. Telling a good story doesn’t matter as much as creating as much content as possible that is as hyper-stimulating as possible.

Regardless of whether or not you accept Hoel’s theory for dreams (I am skeptical myself), it is obvious that human beings are by nature story-telling creatures. We naturally crave story, narrative, myth. We are this way, of course, because we are made in the image of God, the great Storyteller. But, like all intuitive cravings and desires, this innate tendency can be twisted and exploited.

Art as Immunity

What Hoel is arguing for in this essay is, on the one hand, to warn people of the danger of a binge-watching lifestyle and, on the other hand, cultivating an aesthetic sense of (capital-A) Art as a form of immunity against the superstimuli of “Entertainment.” While Hoel admits that the division between low and high art may seem snobbish and elitist, cultivating an artistic judgment may be precisely what we need to not let ourselves become digitally annihilated by Entertainment. I will quote Hoel at length here:

Without a belief in some sort of lowbrow-highbrow spectrum of aesthetics, there is no corresponding justification of a spectrum of media consumption habits. Imagine two alien civilizations, both at roughly our own stage of civilization, both with humanity’s innate drive to consume artificial experiences and narratives. One is a culture that scoffs at the notion of Art. The other is aesthetically sensitive and even judgmental. Which weathers the storm of the encroaching supersensorium, with its hyper-addictive superstimuli? When the eleven hours a day becomes thirteen, becomes fifteen? A belief in an aesthetic spectrum may be all that keeps a civilization from disappearing up its own brainstem.

In a world of infinite experience, it is the aesthete who is safest, not the ascetic. Abstinence will not work. The only cure for too much fiction is good fiction. Artful fictions are, by their very nature, rare and difficult to produce. In turn, their rarity justifies their existence and promotion. It’s difficult to overeat on caviar alone.

This is because entertainment is Lamarckian in its representation of the world—it produces copies of copies of copies, until the image blurs. The artificial dreams we crave to prevent overfitting become themselves overfitted, self-similar, too stereotyped and wooden to accomplish their purpose. Schlock. While unable to fulfill their function, just like the empty calories of candy, they still satisfy the underlying drive. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the works that we consider artful, if successful, contain a shocking realness; they return to the well of the world. Perhaps this is why, in a recent interview in The New Yorker, Knausgaard declared that “The duty of literature is to fight fiction.”

Artful narratives almost always have both a freshness and innate ambiguity; they represent while at the same time avoid overfitting via stereotype. A nudge in one direction and they can veer to kitsch, a nudge in another and they become experimental and unduly alienating. They exist in an uncanny valley of familiarity—the world of Art is like a dream that some higher being, more aesthetically sensitive, more empathetic, more intelligent, is having. And by extension, we are having. Existing at such points of criticality, it is these kinds of artificial dreams that are the most advanced, efficient, and rewarding.

Entertainment, etymologically speaking, means “to maintain, to keep someone in a certain frame of mind.” Art, however, changes us. Who hasn’t felt what the French call frisson at the reading of a book, or the watching of a movie? William James called it the same “oceanic feeling” produced by religion. While the empty calories of Entertainment fill our senses, Art expands us. Which is why Art is so often accompanied by the feeling of transcendence, of the sublime. We all know the feeling—it is the warping of the foundations of our experience as we are internally rearranged by the hand of the artist, as if they have reached inside our heads, elbow deep, and, on finding that knot at the center of all brains, yanked us into some new unexplored part of our consciousness.

An explicit argument for the necessity of an aesthetic spectrum is anathema to many. It’s easy to attack as moralizing, quixotic, and elitist. But what’s essential for people to understand is that only by upholding Art can we champion the consumption of Art. Which is so desperately needed because only Art is the counterforce judo for Entertainment’s stranglehold in our stone-age brains. And as the latter force gets stronger, we need the former more and more. So in your own habits of consumption, hold on to Art. It will deliver you through this century.

Contemporary Christians, and Evangelicals especially, would do well to think more seriously about the role of Art in their life. Paul summons all of us:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8

Whatever is lovely, true, praiseworthy. Does the content you put before yourself and your family help cultivate a love of what is good, true, and beautiful? Perhaps the movie or TV-show doesn’t have any sex scenes, doesn’t have any profanity, maybe it even has a “positive message” about it–but is it discipling you and your loved ones to become more absorbed into the supersensorium? This doesn’t mean that Art cannot be entertaining. Sitting and reading The Hobbit together is very entertaining while also cultivating something noble within us; watching Pixar’s Up or Inside Out is easily enjoyable and transformative. But watching Cars 3, compilations of “fail” videos, or reading a trashy romance novel is merely attention grabbing. They are hollow experiences that do not enrich our lives, but leave us inert, blinking, unthinking.

In David Foster Wallace’s utterly bleak 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, a movie (Infinite Jest) is created that is so entertaining and so captivating that whoever starts watching it will continue to watch the film until they die. It is deployed by a group of terrorists seeking to destabilize the government. Throughout the book, the film is referred to as “the Entertainment.” Wallace’s story is a nihilistic exaggeration of our own exploitability, our primal craving to be stimulated with entertainment, even if we realize that it is gently and comfortably ruining us. Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, reflected that in the competing dystopian futures of 1984 and Brave New World, Huxley was closer to the mark. We are not as controlled by fear and power as much as we are controlled by pleasure and stimulation.

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