quantifying the experiential: (un)known

(then. and again. until the end.)

the nurse enters my mother’s room, scans her ID bracelet, and from the computer station asks, “what are you at, christine?”

(then after)

i’m at my gynecologist to set up genetic testing after learning how pronounced the seeds of female cancers are in my family. i complain of pain in what i would describe as my ovaries but can’t describe it. i’ve had/have it for months. the doctor knows my mother just died of ovarian cancer and tells me that it must be hard to be grieving my mother, but i don’t have ovarian cancer too. she pats me on the leg and leaves the room.

(then before then)

i’m 17. i have the recent knowledge that i have what is called a chiari type II brain malformation. the neurologist performs motor reflex tests and asks me what my headaches feel like–how would i quantify the pain?

(then and when then began)

like my dad pushed me to keep then, he records all my mom’s symptoms, pain levels, ac/counts of body, intake and output in a notebook. he looks for patterns. i ask my mom how she feels and she says crummy or sick or that my dad would know better. for the better part of a year before she was admitted to the emergency room in excruciating pain (a 10? hurts worst?) and a stomach distended nearly double, she complained of pain to her doctor who prescribed her antacid.

(the experiential)

there is much of our body that can be quantified in volumes, counts, formations, but for that which has no externalizing effects/symptoms–or worse, effects that are general and dismissible–the data is experiential. how can the experiential (the embodied) be universal?

as i write this post i have a headache. what does it feel like? my neck and spine feel stiff. all my back muscles carry a heavy ache, low but to the core. it feels like liquid ice/cold flows down from the top of my head. the nape of my neck/the bottom of my skull and my mid spine feel like ice. my arms and legs are mostly numb. there’s a faint hissing in my ears that feels like i can focus on the movement of my ear’s stereocilia: like i can feel what i hear. light makes me want to close my eyes. when i look at something that should be still, it looks like it oscillates side to side very quickly into something like static. my head feels like it’s being crushed at its sides. i can feel the blood flow through my brain like static. my body is white noise; i would rate this pain a 7. but i couldn’t tell you why outside of my own experiences with headaches the last thirteen years. it hurts, but i’m able to write. i couldn’t go socialize or exercise, but i can sit up. i have had lesser headaches and more severe ones that leave me unable to get out of bed. then i second guess my 7, many of my headaches feel like this, which makes me wonder if the number should be lower. or if my headaches are mostly 7s, perhaps i should stop putting off finding a neurologist near syracuse. and a 7 isn’t a set experience of pain; there are different bodily sensations or manifestations of it.

(the universal)

pain scale.png

numeric rating scale

0 | no pain

1-3 | mild pain [nagging, annoying; interferes little with activities of daily living]

4-6 | moderate pain [interferes significantly with activities of daily living]

7-10 | severe pain [disabling; unable to perform activities of daily living]

“A pain scale measures a patient’s pain intensity or other features. Pain scales are based on self-report, observational (behavioral), or physiological data. Self-report is considered primary and should be obtained if possible.” [from wikipedia] [bolded from me]

trying to classify pain makes sense (and also makes sense). trying to quantify pain may help qualify/give quality to symptoms that can help diagnose and treat. but what is the worst pain? what is the worst pain you can imagine? the pain scale is admittedly experiential, but it is relied on to re/act. how can the experiential be given language–and moreover, given language that classifies?

my mom spent so much of her last year in the hospital. the number of times nurses came in and out of the room each day is easily lost count of. i wasn’t there for much of that time, so i don’t know what language of the experiential was established with my mom. the majority of the time when asked what she felt (and a number was what was expected), there often wasn’t any description or qualifying information that came with it. there were times she was talked down a number or two by the nurse reminding her of a prior use/association of that number (as if a body is a constant), times when she cried and could only breathe out 10, and times still when her pain was high but she wanted so desperately to go home that she gave a lesser number.

dull, electric, radiating, sharp, burning, throbbing, acute: what do these words help make understandable? what about the use of metaphor–feels like…? what can be done with ambiguous data? with description as ascription?

what might a historical pain scale make accountable? an anthropological or cultural pain scale with set understandings/assumptions/norms accounted for? what would a pain scale look/sound/feel like that was defined/classified by the patient/body it measured?

(the un/known)

i took a classification course in library sciences my first spring at syracuse that focused on understanding and conceptualizing organizational schemas. my final project in the course was on the complexity of classifying smell or the perception of odor–perception being important, as smell is sensed and interpreted in the brain. smell is interpreted in relation to past experiences and in relation to the substances being emitted as smell. further, smell is interpreted as a whole odors mix–there is no differentiation in intensity, concentration, or the constituents of odors. smell is interpreted in the brain with memory and emotion (the olfactory nerves are located near the amygdala and hippocampus).

smell uses an intermediary language of description because it is so subjectively experienced. linguistic studies are conducted in different cultures to explore the terms used to describe odor to try to get at their typicality. but there is no universal classification of smell because classifying phenomena outside of language–emotions, memory, experience, cultural understandings–can’t quite get at the experiential.

(classification is futile/fertile)

this might seem easily dismissible because these numbers, these categories, these sensations aren’t seen as data–except that they are. though not easily quantified or categorized, this language of the body–the description of the experiential–is telling. i’m interested in continuing to trouble/unravel/make a mess of how sensation is sensed and made sensible/sensable.

the next exploration will work from isabelle bazanger’s “pain physicians: all alike, all different” from differences in medicine: unraveling practices, techniques, and bodies.


recording sensation: the experiential typewriter

The Experiential Typewriter. Image: NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

The Experiential Typewriter. Image: NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary collaborated with a Harvard physician and an engineer at MIT to develop a device called the Experiential Typewriter, which was intended to help get around a common obstacle in psychedelic research—the impossibility for an individual in a psychedelic experience to describe what is happening/what they are experiencing. The typewriter had a keyboard that could be customized/manipulated (to the individual) to record bodily sensations, hallucinations, or a sense of entering spaces/voids.

Below is a brief overview of how the Experiential Typewriter is set up (primarily focusing on the keyboard or input/recording system for the psychedelic experience). I am quoting from Leary’s publication on the typewriter in The Psychedelic Review.

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 3.10.37 PM

Timothy Leary's "The Experiential Typewriter"

Timothy Leary’s “The Experiential Typewriter”

Timothy Leary opens his article with the limitations of language to communicate all that the brain can come to know through a psychedelic experience. He states that “There are, at present, no linguistic systems set up to distinguish between internal and external, or to distinguish various levels of consciousness” (75); the familiar typewriter is coded in terms of the alphabet, and while it can make any word in the language, it is of little use in experiential studies. In experiential studies there aren’t words, so more detailed categories must be created in order to record experience. Leary explains that the experiential language should be able to cover all terms used in our denotational, or as he calls it “external” language, as well as experiences beyond present vocabulary (75). There was no set experiential language; each trial had an ad hoc language for the area of consciousness to be explored.

The keyboard was designed for both the right and left hand to have input. Each of the broad areas of experiences could be subdivided into numerous categories. Bodily sensations could be referred to as each sensory organ or zone of the body and game designations could be made—stomach ache, dizziness, erotic feelings, etc. For both sets of keys, each key could be expanded and when more elaborate forms of the experiential typewriter became feasible, other rows above the keys could be added for specific self categories (76).

The right keyboard was devoted to transcendental and transitional states of awareness; the right hand attempted to define new language for ecstatic experiences which stood outside of current modes. While the left keyboard attempted to summarize modes of conventional awareness for which there now exists a vocabulary (77).

The left hand keys were organized as conventional language concepts and depict broad categories of cultural games:

  • awareness in terms of body-maintenance games, including sex
  • awareness in terms of social-cultural games, including family
  • awareness in terms of aesthetic-recreational games
  • awareness in terms of intellectual-scientific games
  • thumb key: religious-philosophic games
  • The right hand keys are organized as hallucinatory, revelatory, and transcendental experiences:1.

bodily sensations (pain, itch, tickle)

  • moods and emotional states (safe-dangerous, pleasant-unpleasant, relaxed-active)
  • interpersonal feelings toward others
  •  cognitive modes of perception
  • thumb key (master key): modifies any other key to indicate a negative experience

The goal was to record immediate sensory awareness and loss of self-consciousness; revelation of a sudden intuitive insight into relationships previously never grasped; ecstasy-unity-liberation that comes from freedom of identity and social role but; and hallucinations that form new constructions — neo-symbolic patterns develop — of familiar sense modalities scrambled into synesthesia (79). Leary envisioned the typewriter to be used for recording:

  • the flow of experience: high speed, nonverbal methods of converting experiences into language
  • session programming: communication with subject to get feedback/provide intervention in the direction of the plan
  • extrasensory perception research: patterns of telepathic communication between two keyboards in separate spaces
  • physiological studies of consciousness: correlating experience patterns with neurological recordings through a secondary polygraph
  • detailed languages of consciousness: the alteration of the keyboard codes

Leary explained

The experiential language should be able to cover generally all the terms now used in our denotational “external” language as well as experiences beyond the present vocabulary. In addition, the experiential language should be based as closely as possible upon biological and physical processes. The language should also be capable of coding the broad range of experiences which jumble together physical sensations and mental constructions—which we call hallucinations.

Noting that, “There are, at present, no linguistic systems set up to distinguish between internal and external, or to distinguish various levels of consciousness” (75)

What interests me about the Experiential Typewriter is the move beyond established/external semiotics to account for (bodily/sensory) experience. Leary was trying to give language to things like hallucinations, bodily sensations, sick sensations, sense of place/space, and combinations across these categories as they were experienced in something like synesthesia. I’m thinking through his experiments with the typewriter as trying to create a system, both in terms of language and technology, that could make material affective.

I am working on a series of posts based on Leary’s Experiential Typewriter as a means of exploring non-linguistic sensory systems. In the next post, I will be tracing Leary’s work into the early web and virtual reality tools.

places I haven’t been

Reading for tonight’s class (focused on maps and mapping), I began to think of odd encounters I’ve had with maps. I was never in this house, but I’ve heard many stories about the home my great grandmother lived in that straddled the border of Canada and Montana – parts of the house falling on either side of the border. As a child, I imagined a line existing where the border was.

When I got my teaching job in Colorado, the school didn’t have an address; it used the highway number it was off of. Recently, I noticed it had an established address that didn’t name the highway, but the number only.

I don’t tag photos on Facebook with a location, but I have been tagged in a few. I wonder what this map of places I have been recently looks like and how it shapes a representation of me.

Gearing up toward moving in the summer to a place I have never been, I’m looking at pictures and Google maps to create a representation of the place and potential spaces to occupy. These are only what I construct from a distance.

Each time I go somewhere unfamiliar, my dad preps me with expedition tools, despite now owning a GPS. He typically talks through detailed directions, moves into sketching a more focused view of areas of potential problems (street view with directional flow notations), and equips me with a local map and an atlas.

Filling out applications, many required a specific address for campus beyond the building name. Street didn’t seem to match up in some cases, and there was a want for numerical input. Room numbers were inputted, but I wonder if anyone might look for 612 Pray-Harrold?

Not sure if it’s related to my migraines/chiari, but I have what has been described as a very strong sense of smell. Or at least one that focuses in on naming specific smells and combinations of smells. I am now imagining creating maps for areas I live based on the smells that are associated with them. Not permanent, but fleeting sensory maps of places one hasn’t fully been.