The Wow! Experience vs. The Mmmm Experience

Posted: August 29, 2006 in Culture, Idealism

Dave Pollard at How to Save the World has an interesting post that’s pretty consistent with the way I think about our culture’s response to stimulation. Dave divides experience into the “intense, short-term, euphoric, non-enduring type” — the Wow! experience — and the “enduring, mellow, less acute type” — the Mmmm experience. Dave tends to fill a lot more space in his blog posts than I do, in effect filling in a lot of blanks I would rather rely upon readers to supply. His ideas are definitely a worthwhile read.

I blogged about response to stimulation recently in The Paradox of the Sybarite and the Catatonic, basically saying that our characteristic concentration on Wow! experiences tends to make us unfeeling — either unable to feel for lack of enough stimulation (like taste buds shot from eating too many hot peppers) or unable to process the veritable deluge of environmental overstimulation (typical of those who use drugs or alcohol to escape into oblivion). Dave’s take on response to stimulation observes the same swing toward the intense side (as opposed to the mellow side), and he appears to call for a balance between the two response types. It’s not accidental, however, that his discussion takes place almost wholly within the context of entertainment. That’s what pleasure means to most people: entertainment. In contrast, I’m more interested in the broader implications for our culture and more specifically what it means to lead a satisfying and worthwhile life in all its various facets.

Being fully human means, for me at least, having the capacity to experience a comprehensive range of human activity. Three categories are frequently described as quintessentially human: cognitive, affective, and sensory-motor. Sometimes the categories are called thinking, feeling, and sensing or intellectual, emotional, and physical. What it means to function fully within each of those categories is a question for philosophy, and to a lesser degree, neuroscience. In my view, we’ve reached a point of diminished capacity to experience these human dynamics in the modern technological world.

A significant underlying symptom of that diminished capacity is our tendency to willingly and unwittingly release ourselves — to submerge our identities — into our entertainments, whether they be the suspended disbelief of the cinema, the virtual reality of the video game, or the vacuity of the TV. What’s especially notable is that these entertainments tend to be Wow! experiences (notwithstanding the general dulling effect of TV) and heavily visual, and the emotional responses they conjure are either artificial, simulated, or frankly not our own emotions but those of the characters which whom we empathize. Our other major entertainment, music, is far less literal than visual entertainment, but the dominant forms of pop music have a similar Wow! impact.

There is certainly lots more to say on this subject, which will eventually veer into my primary intellectual preoccupation. I’ll trickle it out over time without dumping it all in one long megapost.

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