DISTRESS AND THE CONTACT BOUNDARY
What is it that distresses human beings and at what level of anxiety and distress is it considered unsafe for one’s wellbeing. Most of us at some point or the other have experienced varying stages of anguish, pain, torment, distress, depression and related emotions and when this gets to acute or chronic stages it becomes neurosis which is a functional disorder in which feelings of anxiety, obsessional thoughts and compulsive acts dominate the personality. At this stage it is considered unsafe for one’s well being.
HOW DO WE EXPERIENCE
A study by Perls (1973) has suggested that experience occurs when the organism meets the environment at the contact boundary. So how does experience occur at the contact boundary and does it only happen at the contact boundary between organism and the environment? How exactly do we access the environment? We do it through sensory inputs i.e. sight, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. Polster and Polster (1973) has stated that though contactful experiences may be centered around one of the four senses, it still involves being touched for example seeing is being touched by light waves, hearing is being touched along the basilar membrane by sound waves, smelling and tasting are being touched by chemicals, either gaseous or in solution. Hence there seems to be an overarching reliance on touch in order for organism to experience the environment. Is contact established only when this touch is established? Do people need to meet other people to establish a contact boundary? An infant cannot survive without contact. There is a constant hankering for touch and cuddle and infants distinctly get distraught when the mother leaves the room even if it is for a short while. The infant has to be in a high attention zone and the mother’s sensory acuity is sharpened to detect the infant’s distress.
As the infant keeps growing, the primary carer’s attention progressively diminishes, the degree of containment is eased and from here onwards it is the struggle of the individual to get the attention, validation, a sense of mattering from its environment or contact boundary. Can a person live life in isolation and without human contact? Technically yes, we have solitary confinement in prison cells and there are hundreds of instances where people have in their later part of life, remained bereft of human contact but the probability of these conditions leading to depression, distress, myriad mental illnesses and early death is high. Human beings are genetically wired for interconnectedness and are designed for sociability. In solitary confinement, does the person lose contact with the environment and does experience terminate? Let me attempt to explain these questions with the following analogies.
Sensory input to the brain is just one aspect of contacting the environment but this is not sufficient to render experience. We do not make sense of our environment just from sensory stimuli (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, talk, movement) received at the contact boundary. Our past memory and conditioning plays a significant role in embellishing these sensory stimuli and constructing an experience for us. Since each person perceives the world based upon a combination of sensory stimuli and a reconstruction of own past events retained in memory, the final experience of each person is different. For example if one goes for a wine tasting session and if one has never tasted any form of drinks, may find wine bitter. One doesn’t instinctively like wine, one acquires a taste for it over time and then there is the whole wine vocabulary; region where it came from, year it was made etc. that embellishes the experience. One needs a memory archive to identify the refinements in the taste of various wines. How does a radiologist with just one look at an x-ray precisely locate the fracture, because he/she has seen 100’s of them in the past.
HOW DOES SENSORY ENHANCEMENT WORK
How the same song if heard multiple times invoke a liking for it as against hearing it just once. Say I hear a song once and like it as it triggers nice memories and makes it experiential for me. Next time I hear it, I happen to focus on the musical instruments used which heightens my awareness to various percussive volleys of sound. Later I see the same song being played live in a concert and get a feel of the musicians who play it. If the music gets picturised for instance ‘Sound of Music’ then the visualization and association with the same song intensifies. Upon checking the lyrics, I understand the meaning and experience amplifies. When I took the ‘Sound of Music’ Salzburg bus tour it emblazoned my overall experience.
In the movie My Fair Lady, the songs were distinctive and instead of leaving me to my own imagination, the directors create context, drama and relevance for me. Then with curiosity I check out the lyrics of the song and I understand the meaning. Later I read about the history of the song and find out the original intended meaning with which it was written, and the experience begins to amplify. When one heard a particular song when one was in the 20’s and had a certain experience of say love and when the same song is heard when one is 80 yrs. old, it may trigger variant experiences
Experience therefore in my view, in addition to the organism contacting the environment, at the contact boundary, has an element of ‘memory interference’ about it. Meaning is attached to each incident at the contact boundary and what meaning each person attaches will decide the outcome of his or her experience. One can say ‘he is exhausted or recharging his cells’. One can say I am sunk or ‘I am temporarily discomforted and will bounce back from this’. Crystals too reflect light elegantly but people avariciously pursue expensive diamonds because of the very fact that they are expensive and render a status class. The meaning attached to a pure diamond is different. Of course pristine, and well-polished diamonds indeed outclass crystals in their light reflection capabilities but it needs a keen discerning eye to locate these subtle distinctions. These kinds of meaning attachments at the boundary, whenever an individual accost the environment, changes the whole experience of how the individual perceives the boundary conditions and experiences.
ANIMATE & INANIMATE
Physical contact with another person is not the only way a person experiences the environment, he/she can rely on past memory, fantasies, imagination, and visualisations. Through these mechanisms the individual establishes a contact with the environment. In solitary confinement these could be the only means of survival but it is difficult to keep the visualisations positive for a long time and as one snaps it could result in maddening distress resulting in psychiatric illnesses due to deprivation from social contact. When we say ‘we meet the environment’ it is not just about meeting another human being. Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951) has suggested that contact extends into interaction with inanimate as well as animate objects and that to see a tree or a sunset or to hear a waterfall or a cave’s silence is contact besides contact can also be made with memories and images.
An important distinction is to be made here; one need not have past memory to experience as something which we haven’t done before may constitute a new experience for us. This is particularly seen in infants and children for whom everything is new experience. As the years pass, most of our experiences get reinforced with repetition, conditioning sets in and all new experiences thereafter are first contrasted with the past to make a meaningful whole. Even a new chemical element if discovered is compared with Mendeleev’s periodic table to locate its probable positioning. Past knowledge seems to provide some grounding for reference. We don’t perceive the world, we apperceive the world and this phenomenon is called Apperception. Let us move on to understanding the hierarchy of needs through the concept of foreground and background, a core Gestalt concept that aids our understanding of an aspect of neurosis.
FORE GROUND & BACKGROUND
Fritz Perls the German born psychiatrist and psychotherapist in 1973 had quoted the following: “Dominant need of the organism, at any time , becomes the foreground figure, and the other needs recede, at least temporarily, into the background. The foreground is that need which presses most sharply for satisfaction, whether the need is, to preserve life itself or whether it is related to less physically vital areas- whether it is physiological or psychological.” Let me explain this with an example.
The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, can reach speeds of up to 113km/h and spot a prey 5 kilometers away. In spite of having such alpha predator attributes and its supreme ability to outrun and incapacitate the predator, the cheetah is very sagacious in preserving energy and spends an immense amount of time planning and stalking its prey in absolute stealth. When the cheetah is on a hunt, the prey is in the foreground, the cheetah has opened a new gestalt (not that it is aware of these aspects) and everything else becomes background including its own hunger for which it intends to kill the prey. The hunger was at the foreground a few minutes back because of which it instinctually invoked its drive to hunt but whilst on the hunt it temporarily consigns its hunger to the background. At the foreground is the planning process, how to well-time its run, preserve energy, leap at the precise moment to latch on to its prey, with strength and bite-locking grab its neck and asphyxiate it. Upon killing its prey that gestalt is closed. The cheetah now rests for a while and the body’s homeostasis (auto-regulation mechanism) is at work and is at the foreground to bring the temperature back to normal, blood returning to all vital organs, breathing regularized and muscular tension eased. Hunger at this stage continues to be in the background in spite of it’s absolutely exhausted state. Once body is normalized this need recedes to the background and another gestalt is closed. Hunger now returns to the foreground and the cheetah digs into its prey.
Human beings are also constantly toggling between needs that adhere to the foreground- background principle. Dominant need appears at the foreground and once satisfied that gestalt attains closure and a new one is opened. Contacting the environment is forming a gestalt. Neurotic people are unable to do so and in the next section we will see why. The neurotic person is unable to understand his/her dominant need. He lacks this distinction.
EMERGENCE OF NEUROSIS
As per Perls the field is constantly changing hence the individual must constantly change to survive and he goes on to suggest that it is when the individual lacks the capacity to alter his techniques of manipulation and interaction that neurosis arises. It is when a person is unable to extract resources from within to meet the environment at the contact boundary that anxiety begins. Here is a brilliant quote from Perls, “Fundamentally an organism lives in its environment by maintaining its difference and more importantly by assimilating the environment to its difference; and it is at the boundary that dangers are rejected, obstacles are overcome, and the assimilable is selected and appropriated”. This is further supplemented by O’Leary (1993), “Distressed human beings allow fewer opportunities for contact to happen; they maintain fixed behaviours and perceptions when faced with potentially exciting but threatening possibilities from interaction. Energy is turned back towards the self. They attempt to satisfy needs without including the environmental other. Assimilation is prevented and integration does not occur.” Psychosis is a further debilitating manifestation as they lack one condition; they have no psychological contact.
Wysong (1999) interestingly states that the neurotic is a desensitized self-interrupter. He interrupts contact. The neurotic’s behavior from a gestalt perspective is well summed up in this quote from Perls (1973), “The neurotic’s ‘contact–withdrawal’ rhythm is out of kilter. He cannot decide for himself when to participate and when to withdraw because all the unfinished business of his life, all the interruptions to the ongoing process, have disturbed his sense of orientation. He no longer knows when or from what to withdraw. He has lost his freedom of choice, he cannot select appropriate means to his end goals, because he does not have the capacity to see the choices that are open to him.” Neurosis from a Gestalt perspective is interpreted as a boundary disturbance and this happens due to contact blocking.
All contact is creative adjustment of organism and environment. The emphasis in this blog is the argument that in addition to the organism- environment field, there is a crucial role played by our conditioning and past knowledge in arriving at an approximation about a person’s experience at the contact boundary. How the onset of distress happens, how the neurotic treats his boundary conditions and how contact is severed are aspects invoked in this blog that attempts to provide understanding on one aspect of coping mechanisms, stress and anxiety.