Dr. Anna Ciaunica from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London gave fascinating insights into her work with the anthropological concept of the Transparent Senses at INSIGHT 2021, explaining how the COVID-19 crisis-induced lack of tactile experience encourages a depersonalitation disroder.
The most fundamental things in life are those we cannot see and have taken for granted since - like the panes of a window, they are "transparent". The window gives us the impression of being part of the world. Only when there is a crack in the glass, the window is perceived as such. An distance is created between the "here" and the "out there".
In psychoanalysis, we speak of a depersonalisation disorder or the distinction from a "sense of self". Depersonalisation or derealisation refers to a first-personal feeling of an "I" or "self" that is distant from the world and others. This barrier is described by many as a "pane of glass" that not only separates the "I" from one's "self" but also one's body from the rest of the world.
In her lecture "Whatever Next and Close to my Self - The Transparent Senses and the 'Second Skin': Implications for the Case of Depersonalisation"1 Dr. Anna Ciaunica presented her paper of the same name2 explaining why tactile experiences are existential to one's sense of selfe and why the COVID-19 crisis-induced isolation encourages the case of depersonalisation.
In his paper "Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science"3 Andy Clark argues that the brain - based on past experiences - can predict what information will come next. The brain anticipates previously perceived experiences in order to recognise potential dangers in time. Precise information processing of events in the here and now is crucial for the sense of survival.
Dr. Anna Ciaunica takes this framework of processing and prediction as the basis of her own work and places the "next" in Andy Clark's wording not only in a temporal but also in a spatial relation. Perception must not be limited to the "whatever next", but must also focus on the "whetever next-to-myself". Whatever I can perceive in the immediate vicinity with my senses or what happens at a short distance to my body has the highest priority. The notion of existential orientation thus consists of proximal-multisensory information processing (e.g. olfactory or tactile). Through them, the proximal senses merge into a "transparent" experience background. They are so ubiquitous in their transmission of essential information for survival that we only notice them in the background and constantly take them for granted.
The sense of touch has a key role in proximal perception. Through the skin - the oldest and, in terms of extension and function, the largest sensory organ - we perceive the boundaries between the self and the world surrounding us. Touching plays a crucial role in forming social bonds and conveys a sense of physical closeness and connectedness with our surroundings. "We cannot touch without being touched back", says Dr. Cianuica, suggesting that the skin is a "transparent bridge" that provides an essential link between the self and the physical and social world.
Most people only became aware of how important these proximal senses really are during the course of the COVID-19-related social isolation. Due to the inescapable distance from the physical and social world, many people experienced a state of alienation.
In a soon-to-be-published study, Dr. Ciaunica and colleagues investigated how COVID-19-related audio-visual overstimulation with digital media accelerates self-alienation. The preliminary results show that the physical and social distance, as well as the essential lack of tactile experiences, have created a discrepancy between the "me, in here" and the "world out there". This strongly favours psychological disorders, such as the depersonalisation disorder.
1. Anna Ciaunica: Whatever Next and Close to my Self – The Transparent Senses and the ‘Second Skin’: Implications for the Case of Depersonalisation. INSIGHT 2021 Conference, 11 September 2021.
2. Anna Ciaunica, Bruna Petreca, Aikaterini Fotopoulou and Andreas Roepstorff: Whatever Next and Close to my Self – The Transparent Senses and the ‘Second Skin’: Implications for the Case of Depersonalisation. PsyArXiv Preprints, 05 January 2021.
3. Andy Clark: Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Cambridge University Press, 10 May 2013.
4. Anna Ciaunica: Understanding the Physical Roots of Conscious Experience. MIND Foundation, 12 February 2021.