Technology helps us make enormous strides in advancing human well-being, and creating or optimizing functional spaces and devices. Yet the most important tool we have is our conscious observation of our own experiences and physical-haptic, acoustic engagement with space. What price do we pay if we exclude our bodies and senses – our whole selves – from the process of designing spaces and devices for the human body? The “Hands On! Haptic-Spatial Exercises” help engineering students leverage their perceptual skills as they conduct haptic-spatial activities in everyday settings, observing, recording, reflecting on, processing and presenting their experiences orally and in writing. Reflecting and writing in first-person direct discourse in English frees students from the discourses of their first languages and disciplines to develop their own voices, giving them confidence, boldness, and a sense of freedom in expressing themselves and their unique observations.
Immer öfter greifen wir beim Lernen und Gestalten auf smarte elektronische Geräte zu, ohne Bücher oder Zeichenblöcke zur Hand zu nehmen. Was passiert jedoch mit unserer Wahrnehmung, wenn wir unsere sinnliche Erfahrungswelt laufend reduzieren?
„Hands On! Haptic-Spatial Exercises” zeigt, was wir erleben, wenn wir wieder bewusst unsere gesamten körperlichen Wahrnehmungspotentiale wachrufen und nutzen. Dieser „English Writing Skills” Masterstudien-Kurs des FH Technikum-Wien „Biomedical Engineering“, bietet den Studierenden die Möglichkeit zur kreativen Auseinandersetzung mit dem Thema „Wahrnehmung“. Darin sind Forschungen aus der Architektur, der medizinischen Physik, der Neuropsychologie, der Optik, der Optometrie und dem Tanz einbezogen. Anhand von Wahrnehmungsübungen im Alltag werden haptisch-räumlichen Erlebnisse beobachtet, beschrieben, reflektiert und aufgearbeitet, um diese abschließend mündlich und schriftlich zu präsentieren. Dabei ist ein Streben nach Genauigkeit in der Betrachtung und in der Sprache, immer auch eine Annäherung an sich selbst und dient einer bewussteren Selbstwahrnehmung und einem aufblühenden „Selbstbewusstsein“.
Dieses sinnliche und multidisziplinäre Kursangebot des ersten Semesters hilft Ihnen einen positiven und ganzheitlichen Zugang zu technischen Fächern zu finden und soll sie darin bestärken, wache Wissenschaftler/innen und inspirierte Autor/innen zu werden.
Excluding the body from creating products for the body
Today, our physical engagement with our environment is largely mediated through car, subway, bus or tram windows, and TV or computer screens, with focused visual perception dominating over physical, haptic perception.
In a landmark treatise called The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2012), architect Juhani Pallasmaa explores what happens to us when we isolate ourselves from haptic contact with our surroundings, or when our surroundings refuse to speak to us haptically:
“Computer imaging tends to flatten our magnificent, multi-sensory, simultaneous and synchronic capacities of imagination by turning the design process into a passive visual manipulation, a retinal journey. The computer creates a distance between the maker and the object, whereas drawing by hand as well as working with models put the designer in a haptic contact with the object, or space. … Creative work calls for a bodily and mental identification, empathy and compassion.” (p.14)
As Pallasmaa implies with the title The Eyes of the Skin, “seeing” is not a function of central vision alone; our bodies are involved in the act of and reaction to visual perception:
“The very essence of the lived experience is molded by unconscious haptic imagery and unfocused peripheral vision.” (p.14)
Central vs. peripheral vision: Mona Lisa’s smile
In The Age of Insight (New York, NY: Random House, 2012), Nobel neuroscientist Eric Kandel illustrates the difference in function of central or so-called foveal vision and peripheral vision by explaining that the ambiguous emotionality of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and her smile is invisible to our detail-focused foveal vision, and perceptible only through the holistic analysis of our peripheral cone vision.
This scientific explanation may help to make sense of Pallasmaa’s critique of spaces shaped exclusively by the eye for the eye:
“One of the reasons why the architectural and urban settings of our time tend to make us outsiders … is in their poverty in the field of peripheral vision. Unconscious peripheral perception transforms retinal Gestalt into spatial and bodily experiences. Peripheral vision integrates us with space, while focused vision pushes us out of the space making us mere spectators.” (p.15)
We are equipped with more means of visual perception than we have until recently realized. In their work on the far-reaching potential of optics-less imaging using “smart” sensors and “skin vision” for – among other applications – eventually developing reading devices for the blind, Leonid Yaroslavsky et al. posit:
“Organisms in nature use a wide variety of visual systems [1, 2]. Most of them use optics to form images, but optics-less cutaneous vision (skin vision) is also found among many types of living organisms. (p.1). … There are also numerous reports on the phenomenon of cutaneous vision in humans [9–11].” (Yaroslavsky, L. et al., Optics-less smart sensors and a possible mechanism of cutaneous vision in nature. Central European Journal of Physics. Volume 8, Issue 3, 2010, 455-462.)
Professor Yaroslavsky kindly offered me this summary in an email:
“In short, I affirm that human skin is certainly sensitive to optical radiation …. Therefore, the skin should contain radiation detectors and a corresponding neural circuitry. I believe that it will, in principle, be possible to teach people, especially blind people, to use these mechanisms of extra-ocular vision for a kind of reading...”.
When central vision takes a break
We cannot grasp how focused vision works until we release it from duty and see what happens to us while it is on a break, and observe how it acts when it comes back. For me it was an accidental discovery that preceded my encounter with Pallasmaa’s work by a decade.
Imagine this: You are watching a wild, densely packed William Forsythe choreography. You exhaust yourself, chasing hopelessly after a multitude of details while losing your grasp of the whole. You then rest your eyes on a canvas above the heads of the dancers. All of a sudden, you feel the dancers’ movement as if it were something happening to you. You are watching nothing, and seeing everything. You perceive a bow frenetically drawn across a cello through the side of your neck. The sensation of two people vigorously embracing enters you through your crotch. Everything and everybody turns into your body, and your entire body turns into an eye. You can “see” with your skin.
I told my story to a biologist, who explained that it was my peripheral nervous system kicking in, which happens when you relax the hold of your active gaze, i.e. your central vision. Since then, I’ve been taking my peripheral vision dancing and walking.
When you walk down a street, and you are looking straight ahead or around on a plane of vision within the scene, you are the mover moving past the buildings, and you are separate from them and from other people.
When, however, you lift your gaze above the scene, straight ahead but above the heads of people and buildings, the buildings and the people move past you, and you are enmeshed in and part of their movement, like water rushing, and you a moving divide in a strong current of movement.
When you lower your gaze again, your eyes are the hands that push the buildings and people away and hold them at arm’s length. You regain a sense of autonomy, of separation.
If you gaze ahead again and up at the sky as you are walking, your eye searches in vain for a foothold, for something to grasp. You are no longer on the same plane as what lies before you; you are standing on the lower end of a seesaw. Your eyes are the hands and feet that keep you steady and keep things at a distance. With focused vision, you are the mover; with peripheral vision, you are being moved.
This is probably what Pallasmaa is talking about when he says:
“The steadily growing hegemonic claim of the eye seems to go hand in hand with the development of Western self-consciousness and the increasing separation of the self from the world. Seeing separates us from the world, whereas the other senses unite us with it. Focused vision confronts us with the world, whereas peripheral vision envelops us in the flesh of the world.” (p.14)
Perceiving words as objects and texts as geographical terrain
Cognitive research indicates that language acquisition and reading comprehension also involve physicality. As Scientific American associate editor Ferris Jabr explains, we experience letters and words as objects, and books as terrain to be mapped and traversed. Writing by hand and making one’s way through a physical book yield significantly better learning and comprehension than typing words or reading longer texts on electronic devices. (Jabr, Ferris, Why the Brain Prefers Paper, Scientific American, November 2013, 49-53.)
Putting the body back into the learning and design processes
If we increasingly exclude our bodies, our senses, our whole selves from participating in the processes of learning, comprehending, and creating, we apparently decrease quality and efficiency. Engineers need to take a break from the lab and their computer screens, and reconnect with their environment and their senses.
The “Hands On! Haptic-Spatial Exercises” help engineering students leverage their perceptual skills as they conduct haptic-spatial activities in everyday settings, observing, recording, reflecting on, processing and presenting their experiences orally and in writing. The 21-hour course was piloted in WS 2015 and held again in WS 2016, each time with 14 first-semester Biomedical Engineering master students. Reflecting and writing in first-person direct discourse in English frees students from the discourses of their first languages and disciplines to develop their own voices, giving them confidence, boldness, and a sense of freedom in expressing themselves and their unique observations.
The students were asked to perform activities that include looking through a shut and an open window, raising and lowering their gaze while walking down a street, and comparing spaces they enjoy with spaces they hate being in. They were asked to take in the symphony of the city and of nature with eyes open and shut. They also compared their experiences of three spaces with similar purposes, and three spaces built for different purposes. They were requested to draw by hand and then with CAD, and vice versa. Finally, they were invited to record their observations and shape their 10-minute oral presentations and final written documentation in the media and form of their choice and design.
28 ways of looking through a window
The students were asked to turn their attention outward and inward, to sound the depths of their own reactions, to write and talk about themselves. The outcome was 28 fresh new views of everyday experiences. Remarkably, each of the students’ works had an identifiable character, a personal tone, themes, musicality, “color”, “brush stroke” and wholeness that characterizes a work of art or the inner rhymes of a plausible new scientific hypothesis. Presentations that appeared on the surface to be a linear sequence of disjointed fragments were in fact intuitively of a piece. There is a striking physicality to the metaphorical language that pervades all of the work, anchoring our symbolic expressions in experiences of the body.
A handful of examples from the treasure trove of 300-odd pages are provided here with the kind permission of the students.
In the contest between CAD and hand drawing, both emerged as winners, depending upon the purpose. Felix M. notes: “When I created the technical drawing of a shaft by hand, I could feel and even hear every single line I drew. Before doing this exercise I never paid attention to the noise the pencil was actually making. The noise gave me a kind of feedback if the line was evenly (sic) or not. Doing the drawing by hand gave me some kind of connection to the workpiece and all its edges represented by every single line.”
Ingo G. discovered: “For a schematic of a breakout-board for an analogue/digital converter IC, CAD is the first choice. … To find a solution for a software issue a hand sketch is my way to go. It is much easier to stay tuned in the process and there are no pop-ups or strange sub-menus to put in the details.”
When he opened his window: “An interesting aspect … was that the fresh air, the sounds and the fly came into my room …. I found it interesting because I hadn’t (sic) to do anything. … In my mind there is a relation between an open window and open-mindedness, which is an important quality in the area of research and development.”
Ratnesh D. sees windows in a different light: “As I wake up in the morning and look outside the window, I see trace (sic) of sun light coming into my room; with this it brings ray (sic) of hope and motivates me to do something Productive (sic). However when it becomes dark and I come home and observe the window it acts as a mirror because outside its (sic) dark. Now when I look into the mirror and question myself was my day as anticipated, no not as expected!”
When Markus K. closed his eyes: “The birds in the trees were singing their refrain of the symphony of the nature, meanwhile the Danube played the bass to it. I had the feeling that one could really think of an orchestra of nature that played the sound of nature. It was interrupted from time to time by the solo of some bikers passing by.”
Michael M. says: “At the beginning of the lecture I was excited like a young child, because this way of learning is much more interesting than it was in school. During the lecture, I totally forgot that this is about learning. … My motivation to find the correct words was much higher than in a usual learning process. Additionally, the Spatial Exercise concerns itself with important thoughts and topics that are usually not part of engineering studies, but are needed in this field.”
I began my work with engineers who then doubled into philosophers, essayists, artists and poets. Science and art appear to meet at the nexus of self and the world. I leave the last words to Selena M.: "Maybe that’s the secret: to appreciate the same moment in different ways. If so, a space, room or place has not one but many faces. How beautiful that is! But I do admit that the same concept makes me feel very small, and I pity the fact that we have so little time on this wonderful earth!"