Needed: Recording Layers of Experience

06Sep09

It is possible to add layers to a map.  You might start with a map of a city, in the simplest sense – as, say, a blob of color on a white background.  The yellow area indicates where Columbus is, for instance, on the map of Ohio; but the yellow area does not show any details about Columbus.  But if you add a layer showing the city’s streets, you start to have some useful information on how to find your way around town.  Take away the street layer and add a layer showing the city’s parks, and now you have useful information on outdoor recreational opportunities.  Combine a hundred layers – showing where people live, where the city’s sewer lines are, where crimes have been committed, and so on – and you start to have a feeling for what Columbus is all about.

It is also possible to add layers to an audio recording.  First, you record the piano part.  Then the vocalist sings the words while listening to the piano part with headphones, so you can add the vocal track.  Then you record what the guitarist plays while s/he listens to the combination of the piano and the vocals.  Put together the various layers and you’ve got a song; take out the guitar part and replace it with a violin part and maybe you’ve got a better song.

Something like this is also possible for human experience.  At each moment, I am seeing certain things in my vicinity, and am not seeing other things.  The complete story of my lived experience thus has a video layer.  I am also hearing things, so there is an audio layer.  At the same time, I am also remembering things and having emotional and cognitive reactions and so forth.  These various layers, combined, comprise my lived experience.

If I could record and then play back the layers of my lived experience (through e.g., a brain implant that would supply those layers directly to the portions of my brain that process sound, visual input, and so forth), I would be having new lived experiences during the playback.  This might be useful, or it might just be overload.  If I could suppress part of the current lived experience – put on a blindfold, say, to minimize the visual portion of current experience – then playback of the recorded visual experience could be very interesting.  It would be as if I were currently seeing what I had actually seen at some time in the past.  With the benefit of subsequent experience, and also with the detriment of forgetting, I would doubtless be surprised to observe what I had seen, and had failed to see, at that previous time.  This sort of thing could lead to the creation of very informative sorts of diary entries.

Other people might also want, for various reasons, to know and to understand what I had seen or, more broadly, what I had experienced.  I could share video of my latest vacation with my friends by simply giving them an edited copy of the video track; I could put the combined audio and video portions of an especially remarkable experience on YouTube 2.  A psychologist would have a much clearer understanding of what I had been paying attention to during a certain moment, and so would a criminal defense attorney, a girlfriend, and any number of other people.

To get a full understanding of a certain experience, it would probably be necessary for some other person to take several runs through the recording of my lived experience.  They would suppress their own video capability while “watching” what I had seen; then they would go through it again, suppressing their own hearing while “listening” to what I had heard; and so on with whatever other layers had been recorded.  They would probably not have access to the full contents of my mind, so even if it were possible to record my emotional reaction to a certain sight, sound, or smell, they would presumably not fully understand where that emotional reaction was coming from.  In this sense, the recording’s many layers would almost invariably be lossy rather than lossless.  Some important parts would be missing.  It would nonetheless be possible, through revisiting the several layers of my lived experience, to get a rough approximation of what it was like to be me during a certain experience.

Extensive indulgence in such recordings could be invaluable for an actor who would seek to play the part of a future president.  The president’s lived experience in office would be recorded; after s/he leaves office, the recordings would be released; someone would write a movie about that president; and the actor would then find his/her way to those portions of the former president’s lived experience that seemed especially characteristic or poignant, and would spend hours reliving those experiences, so as to learn to think and react as the president did.

Putting together multiple portions of a lived experience could compromise an observer’s independent judgment.  If, for example, you could see and hear and think what I saw and heard and thought at a certain moment, you might tend to have the reaction that this was not just my personal experience but was, rather, the actual, swear-to-God reality of what happened in that situation.  Possibly the most challenging and important aspect of this innovation, then, would consist of understanding and using the critical or judgmental faculty that makes it possible for a person to feel as though s/he is watching his/her own experience from outside.  This mental crow’s nest would presumably be the portion of the observer’s own lived experience that one would try to insulate from influence by immersion in another person’s lived experience.

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