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B2- Stimuli-Sensation-Perception-Reaction-Behavior-Culture: Design for Sensory Overload in Public Spaces- Chetan Dusane MID ’21

Looking Inward to Look Outward

How do we enjoy music that is well above 100 decibel or strobe lights millions of lumens intense at a concert when they cause discomfort in other situations?

What do these numbers mean? Do they mean anything alone? How does the context give them meaning? What counts as an overload?

As I was trying to build my research to answer these questions, the literature hinted that stimuli experienced by people in urban environments might not be entirely about numbers. Interpretations derived from stimuli gradually revealed themselves to be quite contextual, personal, cultural and dynamic to be explained entirely in rigid numbers. I realized that only a few senses like sound, touch (heat, humidity) and vision (light) have measurable/perceivable thresholds and they only serve as indicators of discomfort, depending on the period of exposure. The perceptual realities of humans experiencing them are very personal and contextual. These realities in this project’s context could be most appropriately understood only by drawing from personal experiences and gathering actual field insight from the citizens of Panvel city.

However, before inquiring the citizens about their experiences, I began investigating the process of sensing, its mechanisms and perception of these senses, to better understand the genesis of our sensory experiences. I wished to elicit genuine, meaningful responses from the stakeholders through this knowledge.

The literature on human sensation usually speaks about the five popular senses. However, many believe that there are more than 20. The senses are of two types, Exteroceptive and Interoceptive. Exteroception occurs when stimuli to be sensed originate outside of an individual’s body— such as sensing light, surfaces, foods, smells and sounds. On the other hand, Interoception is sensing the stimuli coming from within the body like pain, balance, body position, hunger, anxiety, etc. The meaning of objects/environments is derived through an interplay of multiple cues captured from various stimuli by a combination of these senses. Both types of senses together form the sensory ecosystem of a person; however, only exteroceptive senses are being considered in this study as they are more relevant to the topic.

Every sense has a biological system associated with it (like vision system, auditory system, olfactory system etc.). A sensory system collects, transduces, and transports sensory stimuli from the sensory organs to the brain’s relevant parts. Sensory organs and the nervous system are parts of these systems.

A sensory organ contains external stimuli collection and transduction units called the sensory receptors. The receptors detect, collect and transduce relevant stimuli like mechanical (vibrations for ears), chemical (smell and taste), thermal (touch) and light (eyes) into signals understandable by the brain. Neural pathways transfer the transduced signals to relevant parts the brain to read, perceive and act on them.

As mentioned earlier, there are some numerical thresholds to the intensity of the signals known to create a sensory overload in some senses. However, the context within which theses signals are experienced, evoke different reactions irrespective of the numbers. In this project’s context, which concerns urban public spaces, the stimuli are unlike a music festival or an airport runway; but, they are dynamic, multitudinous and perceivably overwhelming because of that and less so because of higher intensity of the stimuli.

Interestingly, deriving meaning from an object/environment is not solely informed by the external stimuli. An individual’s context, mental makeup, expectations, motivations, and experiences greatly influence their interpretations. These aspects add and modify the meaning of the bare external stimuli, making experiences very personal. The discomfort and hence behaviors are greatly affected by people’s personal attributes. The culture of a place also plays a role in deciding what is acceptable and what is uncomfortable. This subjective perceptual experience of the senses is called Qualia. This is not to say that people’s reactions differ even in case of extremely intense stimuli. In fact, visual and auditory (not as much for other senses) experiences usually appear to be similar across demographics. However, as aforementioned, the stimuli in urban spaces cause discomfort and overload majorly due to their dynamism and multitude and sometimes due to intensity.

Selective Attention: Keeping undesired stimuli away

Another interesting aspect of stimuli detection and perception is that the criteria for these actions may shift based on the importance allotted by individuals to the incoming signal. These criteria can be bias, physiological state, expectations, personal experiences and environment. For example, some can read a book in a crowded place, and others may find it too noisy to do so. The ones who can; selectively filter out the external noises to not affect them. An overload of sensory stimuli can make this process difficult. However, this cognitive censorship ability could also come in the way of us experiencing the pleasures and dangers of a space, if the mind is trained, conditioned to ignore most stimuli in an environment of high sensory stimuli like in the urban areas of Mumbai. Also, a constant barrage of stimuli can lead to sensory adaptation, leading to closing out of the environment.

This combination of Sensation and Perception together precedes almost all elements of cognition, thought and behavior. This fact makes the study of Sensory Overload and the subsequent perceptual impedance more significant as it can affect our daily lives in profound ways. This study becomes even more important if we look at it in the context of a crowded Indian urban area like Mumbai/Panvel, which is a mélange of relentless sensory stimuli.

This understanding, then compelled me to learn about how a city, a medley of sensory stimuli, is experienced by its residents. How these stimuli, affect perception and how perception, in turn, affects the mindset, culture, and quality of life in a city.

Some literature I referred to

So, what is a city?

A place for us to house our bodies, as the body houses the self?

or a sensory and emotional experience as Charles Landry (Urban Planner, Author) in his book ‘The Art of City-Making’ says?

I feel it is all at once. An elaborate, intriguing mash-up of social groups, behaviors and cultures experienced through the senses. A melting pot of our collective needs, desires and aspirations. It strives to cater to our basic, economic, educational and health needs along with entertainment, cultural and emotional needs. All this builds unique contexts when we as citizens think of using its various public spaces.

Charles Landry says that the science of city making assumes certain predictability that the city’s human ecologies cannot provide. These ecologies need to be very closely observed, studied and their inhabitants must be involved, in the process of making city spaces. The sensory landscape is a complex interplay of known, long-standing senses overlayed with new, fleeting ones. In my understanding, a city’s sensory landscape elicits a pattern of perceptions, which inspires our behavior, which turns into the place’s culture. Hence, it needs careful consideration in the design phase itself as I feel it profoundly inspires a place’s culture and ultimately, the citizens’ daily lived experiences and quality of life. This is my hypothesis based on literature and personal experiences which is illustrated in the following image.

My Hypothesis

I believe, and the literature also suggests, cities are sensory, emotional and psychological experiences. Only codes, regulations, and ethics do not make a city; it needs the experiential immersion of its citizens to fully realize its potential. But, we as urban dwellers experience them on a lower level of awareness in terms of its sounds, visuals, touches, smells and even tastes. This is because the public spaces, especially in India, are designed only based on geography and demographic data, with perceivable disregard for sensory fulfilment often inducing a closing rather than opening out our senses. My personal experiences in Mumbai and Panvel made me feel depleted, drained, and defensive regarding my desire to experience the cities. By diminishing our desire to experience the sensory landscape, we approach the world and its opportunities from a narrower perspective. This narrowness makes us oblivious to the beauty of the city and its people and the many problems and even dangers it possesses.

All of the above learning led me to perceive a city and its senses in a completely different light altogether! It made me reflect on my own experiences with the stimuli in Panvel city. I remembered the shared feelings we have as citizens of Mumbai/Panvel before stepping out in a public space. Even though the context varied with the spaces I visited, what remained constant was the overwhelming rush and concern for safety due to crowding, chaos, mass media, information, traffic, dust, smoke, heat, humidity, smells etc. I realized that these feelings have shaped certain behaviors in me like excessive honking, cutting lanes, always crossing roads in a hurry irrespective of the traffic lights, contempt for crowds and people in general, anger, disregard for public property and rules, and ultimately apathy towards others. I have experienced these behaviors among my fellow citizens too, and I fear this may have developed a culture of indifference among us in Mumbai/Panvel.

The markets in Panvel with their own mélange of stimuli!
Driving in Panvel is an art!

This constant struggle to defend ourselves from over-stimulation while having our life struggles in mind causes tension and affects our behavior towards our work and one another. This tension then has the potential to affect our health and wellbeing. This feels to be especially true in urban areas as crowded and stimulating as New Mumbai and Panvel. Consequently, the addition of all these hindrances in experiencing the city has led to indifferent experiences in the city we love and a negative impact on our personal and social lives. All this learning led me to build my hypothesis, which then became the basis for my next step, that is proving, disproving or modifying it through an extensive field study. My next blog will cover my findings of extensive field research in detail.