Who would have suspected ear plugs change perception so much?
On the way to work in the crowded tram, I am lucky to get a place to sit. In the noise of people talking, face to face or on their mobile phones, it is difficult to read without being distracted. Currently, I am reading essays of Jorge Louis Borges. To reduce the noise level, I put ear plugs into my ears and then delve into the book. The noise is dampened, it is easier now to ignore it since I do no longer understand most of the words, and soon, enjoying the diversity and originality of Borges’ thoughts, I forget it.
In Cologne main station, I have to change to another platform and another train. I have to walk through the whole building, from one side to the other. I leave the ear plugs in my ears since I want to continue reading as soon as I reach the other platform. I notice a rumbling sound with each step. I have not noticed it ever before. Each time my heel touches the ground, I can hear it. Obviously, it is a sound that travels not through the air but through my body. It probably reaches my ears through the bones, traveling all the way from my feet along the legs and along the backbone and into the skull. This sound must always be there when we walk but it normally blends with the sounds we get through the air and we don’t notice it.
Walking through the entrance hall of the main station, I notice that dampening the sounds does not only change the perception of sounds. Taking away some of the auditory background we are used to redirects the visual attention to details not normally noticed. The familiar integrated experience of perceived reality is changed and pried open. The perceptual world becomes unusual. This seems to heighten attention, as if I am alarmed. Being distanced from the familiar reality, you suddenly see more.
What I am noticing is the incredible diversity of how different people walk!
An obese man is wobbling along, not so much walking by moving his legs forward but tilting his body from one side to the other and turning it forward each time around his hip joint, like one would maybe move a large and heavy parcel by waggling it from one side to the other.
An African man is moving with a flowing, swinging movement, all parts of his body finely orchestrated and synchronized in an elegant and efficient way informed by the accumulated motoric knowledge of thousands of years of complex dancing.
What a contrast to the clumsy movements of a young boy, the fierce, jagged, almost military steps of a young woman dressed in glamorous fashion, the waddling of a Japanese girl, the scuffing movements of an older woman. I can see no two people walking in the same way. Depending on body structure, age, health, mood, culture, sex, fashion, personality, individuality, hurry, everybody is walking differently. It is possible to group people into movement styles, although there are always individual differences. Gaits seem to be as unique as finger prints, faces or voices. Different cultures seem to divide and group the muscles and movements in different ways, resulting in culture-specific movement styles. It is probably actually the same phenomenon that causes accent in language. There seems to be something like a movement accent and language accent is a special case. Maybe the way people sit, kneel or squat also influences their gaits. Is there a science of gaits or movement styles?
I am not good in reading facial expressions or body language. Where others see meaning and expression, I notice details in the formal structure of movement. Does anybody else ever notice this incredible diversity in movement styles? Maybe the hundreds of hours I have spent watching Africans dance have sensitized me to this. Or maybe I have a special talent that enabled me to understand those dances and enables me now to notice the structural differences in human movement. Maybe it is just a result of using ear plugs.
Removing some of the sounds also changes perception enough to suddenly look at the different ways people dress in an outsider’s way, like I have turned into an alien. It looks to me like most people are trying to embody or “implement” a certain pattern or stereotype. There is a man with tie, a punk, a girl in a tight dress. There are men in leather jackets or jeans. I have obviously lost track of the different styles and groupings of young people, there are many different ones. It looks like each person inhabits their own world of thoughts and ways of perception. By clothes, gadgets, hairstyles and make up they give us a window into this world, showing us the peer pressures they are exposed to, the wishes and hopes that drive them, the groups they want to belong to. What strange or banal, rich or trivial, sophisticated or naïve inner worlds might be hidden behind these outer worlds and masks? Some people show their creativity and originality, or is it perhaps that of the fashion designers who created their clothes and styles? Many obviously buy their styles off the shelf, be it because they define themselves as belonging to a certain group, be it that they don’t find it so important (I notice that I belong to the latter group).
I would have to sit down here and observe for a long time to find out more about these worlds, these diverse as-if-games, but the way through the station is too short to see more this time. I am stepping on the escalator and it lifts me up to the platform. The train has just arrived and I jump into it. The doors close. The train glides out of the station and onto the bridge over the Rhine. I open my book. Shielded from the noise of the train and the people by my ear plugs I start reading and the outer world fades from my attention again.
(The pictures are from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ohrenst%C3%B6psel.JPG,