McLuhan Studies : Issue 3

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CHAOS and the MEANING of

Scientific research shows that the brain needs the stimulation of chaotic disequilibrium in order to communicate complex meaning. But Electric media suppress the brain's ability to do this, producing a response of unfocused feelings and inattention to detail. Under electric conditions print becomes a self-organizing structure that continually governs the roles of all other media through adjustments to cultural feedback.

Chaos can show up in a linear system and destroy it: vibrating metal pushed an nth too far can shatter like glass. Or, a system seeming to lack order can unexpectedly, unpredictably achieve a state of self-organization which produces a complex nonlinear order: a turbulent flow like a river rapids can with the smallest change in acceleration can become a smooth and silky pool of eddies. We are talking about physical reality, everything from star clusters and molecular convection experiments, to the slime mold cycle (cf. Briggs and Peat 138-39).

Chaos theory, which is larger than an ordinary paradigm, is a new ground for communication that alters the ratios of meaning between print and electric media. Like weather, sun spotting activity, the rhythm of stock prices, or the extremely complex economics of the impending information super highway, such seemingly chaotic systems, can be seen as exquisite, inexhaustible order when observed as giant wholes. Chaos, the new science of wholeness, is integrating all media into one matrix, or strange attractor a chaotic structure, like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which tends toward meaning without ever becoming exhausted by full explanation. Such a thing is an implicate structure - one that continually unfolds new insights.

Even the unique structures of snowflakes can be explained by chaotic formulations and "butterfly effect," the powerful effects of very small events on very large ones: snowflake is to avalanche as butterfly wing to tornado.

The chaos of weather behaviour, is bounded by a strange attractor called climate, which shows a dynamic repeated pattern only on a global scale, through time, that daily seems completely random locally. Or, the behaviour of any person is bounded by the strange attractor called personality; and so forth. Everywhere chaos exists, self-organizing lines of nonlinear dynamic structure can be found. Nor is chaos rare. As one investigator puts it "Chaos is ubiquitous; it is stable; it is structured."

Biology and physiology are finding chaos in the human body in which erratic, random behaviours, once thought to be pathological, are now understood as "normal" chaotic irregularities. A system in extreme disequilibrium can fluctuate in ways that force the system up into a state of higher organization, more complex, more lively. Understanding such turbulent patterns, once thought to be dangerous, even life-threatening, is beginning to allow for more effective therapies and a better understanding of the effects of electric process on the body. Medicine is discovering that some degree of chaos is necessary for the healthy functioning of the heart, as it is for the brain. A healthy heart is continually varying its beat over a range of frequencies. For the brain, especially in literate, analytical pursuits, a high level of chaotic activity is generally expected in a healthy individual (cf. Gleick 281).

Perhaps the most fundamental discovery linking chaos to bodily processes is that "the level of brain function seems to be intimately linked to the degree of chaos in brain waves" (Gleick, "Inner Rhytms" chapter, 280-92). The formulation of this action seems simple enough: higher stimulation, greater chaos; lower stimulation, less chaos.

Since television viewing reduces the quantity of the highest frequency brain waves, those in the Beta range, and produces much more Theta (associated with drowsiness) what should we think of a medium that reduces the healthy disequilibrium of the brain, thus dampening down the brain's ability to send or receive information? Print comprehension requires a high energy disequilibrating input. TV dilutes this need.

Studies conducted at the Australian National University in Canberra by the Emerys, a husband and wife team, determined that television viewing creates inhibitive responses in the user and reduces cognition to low levels thus thwarting learning.

The evidence is that television not only destroys the capacity of the viewer to attend, it also, by taking over a complex of direct and indirect neural pathways, decreases vigilance - the general state of arousal which prepares the organism for action should its attention be drawn to specific stimulus. (723.9)

The Emerys' report confirms Krugman's preliminary findings of a reduction of brain wave activity in television viewing linked to a pattern associated with passive inattention. "The continuous trance-like fixation of the viewer is then not attention but distraction - a form akin to daydreaming or time out" (Ibid.). The chaos of high stimulation and extreme disequilibrium seems totally lacking here. Consciousness is not in evidence.

The noted psychologist, A.R. Luria has determined that "No organized thought is possible in these phasic states and selective associations are replaced by non-selective associations, deprived of their purposeful character" (Ibid.). So the smoothed out anti-chaotic brain wave state is antithetical to thought production and healthy brain rhythms. In other words, one can learn very little, if anything, from television. Not so you think? Recall just three of the fourteen to nineteen items from last night's 11 o'clock television news.

Strangely, when the brain waves of epileptics are monitored they are found to be dramatically less chaotic during a seizure. This confirms the notion that in some cases a lack of chaotic activity in the brain is a signal of incipient malfunction. It is becoming quite clear, from the work of Krugman and the Emerys, A.R.Luria, Peper and Mulholland, and others, that while watching television, the process of dynamic, alert interaction with reality is greatly reduced, sometimes completely blocked.

Habitually shutting down the verbal and analytical functions of the mind is bound to result in mental patterns that are reduced in terms of their potentials for linear order. It remains to be seen how we can train an active mind to high levels of professional competence using nonlinear techniques.

PET (positron emission tomography) imaging lights up the brain in areas according to specific activities. (Eg: reading lights up its specific area of the verbal centre.) Irradiated blood supplied by the nuclear medicine lab is loaded with positrons (electrons with reverse spin). This 'charged' blood is introduced into the patient and when the blood flow is increased to a particular area of the brain by a specific task, neurons and positrons mutually destruct in a great dispersion of gamma radiation. This action lights up the PET monitor. Such techniques produce dependable evidence as to the state of the brain induced by the use of various media. Print, we know, resides in the left cortical hemisphere and television viewing goes right.

Certain conclusions are unavoidable from the science in this area. Radiant light, the light of cathode ray technology, produces a dramatic downscaling of all brain activity associated with high energy, alert, healthy, disequilibrium. Television and VDT viewing take from the brain the best features of its highest non-passive functioning.

Acoustic work, like composition from memory, silent reading, and mental arithmetic all require and induce the faster brain wave production. Activities such as reading a televised text, watching TV, watching a televised interview, are all noticably downscale in the range of the slowest and least chaotic of brain wave activity (cf. Emery 627). Literate activity, reading,writing and talking carefully, are activities that provide a sufficiently chaotic base to experience that there is always the tendency for these activities to complexify further and speed up the brain.

The Emerys conclude, with impressive neuro-physiological evidence to back their claims concerning the function of Theta waves, that television is "a maladaptive technology," a technology that injures the health of the user. They set up a set of conditions showing the relationship between high Theta presence and low brain wave response in the situation of TV use:

1. Normal response - no theta.
2. Some theta showing periodicity.
3. Abundant constant theta, approaching drowsy or hypnogogic pattern.
4. Epileptic spike and wave response, may be subdivided at least into a) petit mal b) grand mal. (727)

Merrelyn Emery locates the effects on the brain of television viewing in the area of number three, in the domain of drowsiness and the hypnogogic state. "We can confidently predict that as theta increases during viewing, there will be at the ontogenetic level, a corresponding increase only in knowing 'of' and not knowing" (729). ["Knowing 'of' " is defined as "the primitive (ie:pre-language and consciousness) function of recognition."] And further, theta is discovered to be a sign of other perceptual trouble: "An increase in theta represents a breakdown ... between person and environment in the sense that environmental vigilance is neglected"
(728-29). So the emotionally flattened effect of TV viewing appears as ill health in respect to brain function, yet the national average of TV viewing time continues to go up. Perhaps, like neurotics, we fall in love with our disorder.

Their conclusions based on a careful analysis of the strong theta inducing properties of cathode ray technology, television and VDT's, are clear: "television must be judged as a maladaptive technology" (727) because, among several measured reasons, it "inhibits consciousness and purposeful behaviour." In other areas of study they conclude that TV is maladaptive because it stimlates only recognition and squelches conscious recall; that TV involves "more forgetting than remembering" of TV content; that "understanding" of contents is minimalized (cf. 756).

The diseqilibrium of right and left hemispheric modes of experience is another indicator of the natural chaotic imbalance in neurophysiological aspects of communication. Since television viewing is clearly biased toward the right hemisphere, the dynamic flow from side to side, associated with feeling and thinking, is disrupted. The chaotic potentials for a higher order thought are minimized, if not eliminated all together. This is low level disequilibrium not extreme enough to produce higher order.

In spite of our sciences and technologies and the comforts that flow from them, the electric revolution has created for us conditions of extreme disorder and anxiety. We are increasingly overloaded with extraneous information. There is a strong desire to inhibit information, to desensitize ourselves to the endless onslaught of data stimulation. Is there an order in all of this chaos? The millenial shift is upon us. What changes does it bring?

A deep order is emerging from the multi-media complexity of our overloaded world. Electric media have created chaotic relations between thought and feeling in our lives by severing one from the other. Now, possessed of interactive media complexes in technologies like CD-ROM, and the rest, we fear that print is obsolescent. This is probably not true and for several reasons.

1.Radiant light and reading are mutually exclusive: As the Emerys and other investigators have shown, the neurophysiological evidence is overwhelmingly clear that VDT use for extensive reading carries the virtual certainty of deleterious health effects. Simply put: radiant light (as contrasted with reflected light, that is, cathode ray technology CRT) draws energy away from the verbal centre and sets up strong stress patterns for anyone trying to use a VDT for literate purposes. Print is going to have to stay on the printed page where it can best enhance our re-entry into the acoutic space of electromagnetic wave resonance. It is easy to see that as movies become enslaved to moronic visual production values,sound track technology has grown impressively.

2. A whole view of any event cannot be gained through any one medium. The classics of any culture are implicate structures, or enfolded contents always unfolding: an ancient story from prehistory unfolds as a great epic poem; the poem gives rise to a dramatic version staged by great actors; the play becomes a novel; the novel becomes a film; the film is remade into a five-part TV series; the panoplied story thus lives on regenerated by its own internal resistence to finality, its self-re-organizing potential.

Parallel to these translations of the story from one modality to another is a series of technological changes that make each version of the story possible. As Baum and Peat put it, "The explicate form of all this is the structure of society, and the implicate form is the content of the culture which extends into the consciousness of each person" (185). Society is structured by the technical means of communication that it employs, as Innis has made clear. So the explicate form of order in this example unfolds but is not seen to unfold while the implicate order arrests our attention as an entertaining unfoldment of interesting contents. Each medium is biased in respect to the view of reality implicit in the structure of its technology, a film view, a book view, a TV view, a photographic view, or the multiplex views that are now emerging, like an I-Max consumation of a Rolling Stones concert.

3. The deep story is an irreducible form. Mircea Eliade has impressed many people with his profound insights into comparative religions and the Hermetic grounds to human culture. It is his opinion that story is an irreducible form, as important to survival as food, sex, or living space; that is, the deep story, the enfolded, implicate myth, is irreducible, permanent. When one encounters someone, an actor ideally, unfolding a story, a strong sense of reconciliation between inner and outer is achieved, and is one of humankind's finest sensibilities. Every child, like an amazed primitive, listening to a bedtime story at a parent's elbow knows this. No electric medium can begin to consumate this need without careful instruction and control by print. Christmas television specials are paragons of this relationship in which the told story supervenes even the compelling values of animation.

4. Only print can lift the level of public debate above the simple headline service of television: Most good studies of electric media show clearly that their technology reduces language to levels of embarrassing simplicity. A cultural environment stultified by such intellectual ill health would quickly decay into an ungovernable swamp of inarticulate lawlessness. Print's persistent reinvention of itself, vis-a-vis the feedback from electric media, may save us from this immanent fate. There are signs that the general level of public discourse has risen measurably in the last quarter century as a direct result of forcing criticism out of television's arena of sponsored debate. Our jaded disinterest in political rhetoric is the surest sign, as well as our social desire for smaller group identities, provided that doesn't slip into sectarian mindlessness or violent tribalism.

5. Print tends to deal with complex inner realities because it is the medium that best does this. To obsolesce print or eliminate it altogether is to contemplate a headless body and a thoughtless world. Electric media can only intimate depth and at best create strong feelings about events. The influence on thought and perception of the form of any medium cannot be exaggerated. This complex produces a neo-Whorfian hypothesis: language and print in their imbalanced tension with electric media shape our understanding of reality. Multi-sensory media, film and television, live by print, as screen plays and scripts. The semblance they give us of a wholer reality is still controlled by print even though they convert print into a ground. Print is the thought ground to
the feeling media. This is a nonlinear relationship.

6. Print allows thought to become dynamic. Gray and LaViolette model a non-linear brain:

They've proposed that thought starts as a highly complex, even chaotic bundle of sensations, nuances, and "feeling tones" which cycle from the limbic system through the cortex. During this feedback cycling, the cortex selects out, or "abstracts" some of these feeling tones. These abstractions are then reinserted back into the loop. The continued abstracting process has the effect of nonlinearly amplifying some nuances into cognitions or emotions, which become organizers for the complex bundles of nuance-filled sensations and feelings (Briggs and Peat 170).

LaViolette even regards thoughts as "stereotypes" of these feeling tones. "They're like cartoons of reality," he says of thoughts. The animated cartoon, a special manipulation of the persistence of vision, is a medium of its own, not absolutely restricted to film or television. It is instructive that a post-modern epistemology should rely on "feelings" and "cartoons" as the basis of a nonlinear theory of the development of thought. But in recording and presenting these ideas the authors resort to print, the only medium complex enough to contain the metalanguage of their hypothesis. Shouldn't we know by now that the brain is both linear and nonlinear simultaneously; it may even be, as Pribram suggests, holographic.

7. An important aspect of the apparent disorderliness of the postmodern world is our inability to perceive complex cultural contents in our artefacts. As McLuhan first suggested, the form of a new medium produces psychic and social change in all the other media forms and gives us, in total, a new pattern of perception for looking at the world. Television, for example changes the way in which film and novels mean, as well as the world they reflect. Another 'dialect of perception' is added to our awareness of a diversifying reality. The content of the psyche may be rapidly expanding considering that: The true content of any medium is the perceptual disequilibrium its technique adds to the structure of the story. The story of Don DeLillo's White Noise concerns the evacuation of a city in flight from a cloud of toxic gas with a "mind" of its own. The true content of White Noise is its chaotic interplay between all the media as the structural ground for the novel's story. William Marshall's Roadshow, a bizarre novel about a traffic jam, is chaotic fiction as well. And Beckett has written more chaotic novels than anyone, yet. Just think of How It Is, a book that defies narrative approaches and is a nonlinear, iterative swamp. William Burroughs is the father of pharmaceutical chaos in the implicately ordered novel he spent his life writing called variously Naked Lunch, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine, et cetera .

8. Television and films can easily be misunderstood and feared if only measured for their maladaptive tendencies and in isolation from print. By themselves, and not considered part of the media mix they do suppress brain function and thwart aggressive cultural reach. But to a significant extent the people who watch the passive electric media also use print, listen to radio, keep notes and write letters or faxes or ads or reports. Their chaotic habits in playing with the media mix change print's roles but cannot destroy the medium itself, a perfectly ridiculous contention in a society dominated by highly trained, high priced professionals.

9. Disequilibrium and chaos in communication: No sense speaking of balance, because that is not the answer if disequilibrium is essential for high art with strong meanings. All media, taken together, are a process pattern in which every medium bears a more or less strong relationship of imbalance with print. Radio less, television more. But each relationship is a ratio. The media mix feeds on disequilibrium. The fundamental disequilibrium between all media is the measure of each form against the Ur-form of print. The further apart electric forms get from print the more energy of disequilibrium is available for conversion into higher ordered ironic possiblities for print. Print gorges on her own children for strength.

Considering the nonlinear structures of Joyce's, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, the original hypertext, with its 'Windows'-like structure, and especially Finnegans Wake, the confusion and disorder these dynamic works introduce into the reader's consciousness is so intense that the works suffer serious cultural neglect. This is a powerful irony. The best must now be ignored. "Here Comes Everybody," indeed! Joyces works are dissipative structures in the full sense of Prigogine's criteria: requiring enormous imputs of energy, attaining very high tensions of disequilibrium and having within them not apparent but discoverable deep orders of self-organization. Astounding! Once again we find that art leads science in matters of paradigm shift. Also per usual, most people want to be spared such understanding.

Whether or not we have the wit to exploit these possibilities, one thing seems sure - print will continually benefit from the novelizing feedback from electric forms.The future of print is probably rich in its enhanced abilitiy to give birth to new futures through its eternal role in gestating all new forms of communication.

Works Cited

Bohm, David, and F. David Peat. Science, Order, and Creativity. New York: Bantam 1987.

Briggs, John, and F. David Peat. Turbulent Mirror. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

Emery, Merrelyn. The Social and Neurophysiological Effects of Television and their Implications for Marketing Practice. Doctoral dissertation. Australian National University. Canberra, 1985.

Gleick, James. Chaos. New York: Viking, 1987.

Innis, Harold. The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1951, 1977 (first ed. 1951).

Krugman, Herbert E. "Brain wave Measures of Media Involvement." Journal of Advertising Reasearch 11.1 (1971): 3-9.

-----. "Memory Without Recall, Exposure Without Perception." Journal of Advertising Research 17.4 (1977): 7-12.

-----. "Electroencephalographic Aspects of Low Involvement: Implications for the McLuhan Hypothesis." American Association for Public Opinion Research. New York, 1970.

Luria, A.R. [Alexander Romanovich] Language and Cognition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1981.

Mulholland, Thomas, and Erik Peper, "Occipital Alpha and Accomodative Vergence, Pursuit Tracking, and Fast Eye Movements." Psychophysiology 8.5 (1971): 556-575.

Prigogine, Ilya and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam, 1984.

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