Perception deficits on my morning walk to work

Have you ever noticed how much less you see when you put in your iPod headphones and walk down the street? And yes, I mean “see” because I am convinced that I do not witness/observe/appreciate nearly the same amount of visual stimuli with my earbuds in.

I’ve been walking to work again recently – six kilometres door to door – through Hastings-Sunrise, Grandview-Woodland, Strathcona, the Downtown Eastside and right into the heart of downtown. It feels like descending through rock strata as I pass from one distinct neighbourhood to the next, passing colourful houses, community gardens, groups of Chinese women doing Qi gong exercises along the way.

For whatever reason, this last month I’ve been putting on the iPod more often than not – which wasn’t the case last year when I walked. It’s like I forgot over the winter that I don’t “get bored” with the sounds around me, and somehow I need the extra stimulus of music. So for the last few weeks – that’s how I’ve been taking my steps and I have to admit it’s been kindof awesome. Driving music definitely quickens my pace, and if I play the rights kinds of things – a little joy even leaps up in my heart from time to time, giving me connections to my self and my own thoughts as I get my morning exercise.

But because music played through headphones turns one inwards – internalizes the experience of being in the world by blocking out non-controlled sound – so too does our range of visual perception narrow. I hadn’t really been aware of the degree this was happening until this morning.

When I stepped outside my door, the birds were making a racket and for the first time in a couple of weeks I decided to pocket my iPod instead of tuning into it. Within a few blocks I noticed that rather than focusing down and directly ahead, is that without the headphones I am much more likely to put my chin up and open my field of awareness outside of myself. While I have always known this to be true when interacting with other people on the street, that headphones limit those interactions, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so aware of how blocking external/environmental sounds (replacing them with others) creates nothing short of a  sensory deficit. A distraction, I suppose, from the real drama unfolding continually around us (and especially in the city!)

And yet, once I get downtown, every other person is plugged in to a machine – turned towards their individual and interior space, each grooving to their own private soundtrack designed to reinforce or change their mood of the morning. Which is how so many of us navigate through the city – on foot, in a car, even by bicycle – tuned into ourselves and away from everyone and everything else. And despite the fact we (almost) all engage in what can only be termed a form of narcissism (“I only need to listen to my interior self, fuck the exterior around me”) we are annoyed when others do so.

I’m not sure how I got into this headphone habit, except that it gives me an artificial stimulus I talked myself into thinking I needed. Good thing the birds reminded me this morning that there is much more to hear and see when I don’t plug myself into a machine upon encountering the world outside.


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