The Gap Between Feeling and Meaning

1. How I got to Oregon

Michael had a theory that Los Angeles was a bright-shiny Hell. A year or so before moving to LA, pill he and Shannon had been in an accident that had turned over their car. Michael posited that rather than walking away from the crash, they had actually died and now were in a gilded underworld, surrounded by garish symbols that were supposed to denote success, but felt hollow and aggravating.

Unlike my roommates, I had been in no car accident. By then, in my mid-twenties, I had failed at the only thing I was trained to do – become a big time Hollywood director. I had no real skills and I wasn’t especially good at selling myself. I lived off of temp jobs and some money my parents gave me. With a degree in theater education, Shannon quickly found work as a receptionist/assistant to a couple of bankers. Her primary responsibility was to look pretty. The job gave her enough free time to allow her to draw terrifyingly violent images of her bosses. Michael was actually a skilled programmer and electrical engineer, but even he had trouble finding decent working in LA in the recession.

It was the beginning of the 90’s, the end of the 20th century. We each believe that the world (if not literally going to Hell) was heading toward disaster. The economy sucked. The US had just fought a war to prove it could kick ass now that the Cold War had ended. The environment was increasingly toxic. We had heard on the radio from Dr. Hellen Caldecott, that unless major changes were made the Earth would be beyond our ability to repair it within 10 years.
Michael, Shannon and I each wanted our lives to be different. We didn’t want to be small cogs in the great wealth accumulation engine. We were going to do something meaningful and interesting. We were going to unplug from the mass consumer culture. We were going to live intentionally. An while it took a lot of talk (and quite a few arguments) once we thought of the idea it seemed clear that we should all move to Oregon, and (Shannon and I) would study Psychology.
2. The Gap

In January of 1992, Shannon and I started classes at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Even though we both had Bachelors degrees, we had enrolled in the undergraduate, thinking that this would get us the experience we needed to apply for a good graduate program.

It was strange being back in school. I was a few years older than most students. Classes were easy, and I noticed that the professors had little interest in teaching. One of the most tedious professors was, Dr. Chad Beacon (not his real name). His lecturers so closely followed the text, as to make the reading superfluous. Despite this, Dr. Beacon wasn’t a bad guy. He was a well regarded social and cognitive psychologist, and most importantly we was willing to allows undergraduates like Shannon and I assist in his research.

It’s an open secret that much of academic psychology is based on 18-22 year old college students forced to participate in experiments to get credit for a class. Being research assistants, Shannon and I led students into small rooms and instructed them to punch buttons on a computer in reaction to stimulus. Dr. Beacon was interested in the gap in how humans processed emotional tones of voice and the meaning of words. He had subjects listen to an audio file of different words:

Cancer, Love, Hate, Fun, Failure, Happiness, Success

These were spoken in varying tones of anger, joy, despair, and ecstasy.

Cancer (joy), Love (ecstasy), Hate (anger), Fun (despair), Failure (Joy), Happiness (anger), Success (ecstasy)

Subjects were asked either to listen for the feeling conveyed by the tone of voice or the meaning of the word. The computer measured reaction time, and Dr. Beacon identified the gap in people’s responses to the meaning of the work or the emotional tone.

Meanwhile, Shannon got a job at an “old fashion” ice cream parlor and was forced to dress like members of a gold-rush era San Francisco barbershop quartet. Each time someone ordered a sundae, Shannon had to drop what she was doing to make an elaborate presentation of the dessert. I got a job with the University Alumni fund. By the time I started, they had already called all of the alumni and were calling parents of current students. I read from a script and was terrible at the job. Though our pay was crap, Shannon and I made enough to to pay rent and feed ourselves. We were members of a food coop, where in exchange for some labor we purchased food from local farms and dairies. The upside of poverty, was that we could be proud of unplugging from the mass consumer culture. We bought almost no crap. We walked almost ever where. We largely eat fresh local foods.

Michael followed Shannon and I to Eugene several months after we had started school.  Shortly before we left for Oregon, Michael received an offer of employment in LA. He’d felt obligated to stay behind to save up some money. He visit had visited us, during the riots following the Rodney King verdict. Now that Michael was in Oregon we moved to a larger apartment a few blocks away from the Willamette River. From there, we could hike up Skinner’s Butte, pick blackberries along the river, practice Tai Chi in the park, or get on the trail for a short bike ride along the river to almost anywhere in Eugene.

We took up a hobby of going around to grocery stores and specialty food stores of Eugue in search of free samples. It wasn’t subsidizing our income, so much as the thrill of the hunt. On a good day we might find exotic cheeses and chocolates, chutney and salsas, even samples of sandwiches and or casseroles. Even on the worse day,there was alway Albertson’s which reliably put out sugar cookies and sausage for our enjoyment. It didn’t matter if we found anything at all. We were just driving around, hanging out with each other, talking smack, and having fun. Perhaps it didn’t really match the lofty ideals that had brought us to Eugene, but we didn’t care.

Michael found a contract programming work. It didn’t pay much for his skills. Shannon quit the old-timey ice cream parlor and got a job as a nanny. The Alumni Fund fired me. That was fine with me. I’d hated it. Compared to telemarketing, my next job as a student janitor working 11 – 3am wasn’t so bad. If cleaning toilet and mopping floors wasn’t exactly fun, at least it was necessary work. I wasn’t just pushing around paper or producing crap for someone else’s profit. Being a night janitor has many benefits: I only worked 4 hours 5 days a week; I listened to books on tape from the library; and I could collect all of the cans and bottles that kids threw away and turn them in to the recycling center (In Oregon, that was 5 cents each). Most of all, being a janitor allowed me to study psychology and spend the rest of the time hiking, writing short stories, and hang out with my friends.


3. Calibration

Dr. Beacon may have been a dull in class, but he was good to the students helping him with his research. He held discussion groups where we would talk about research and our interests. He gave us background into his research and even listened to our ideas.

Recently, Shannon and I had been invited to a salon at Beacon’s house. Among colleagues, Ph.D. candidates, and even some undergraduates like us, Beacon presented a new model of emotion and cognition he had been working on. Sitting to the left and slight behind Beacon was Dr. Quint Largefellow (not his real name). Dr. Largefellow was one of the most famous of the professors at the University because of his work on a well-regarded personality model. He was also a huge dick. Largefellow sat with his arms folded, smirking regularly, and frequently interrupting Beacon to reminding the room of his own work. everyone frequently of his own contributions. Beacon worked hard to keep a professional veneer.

At the next meeting of Beacon’s discussion group, we grumbled about Largefellow’s behavior. Beacon was professional. He explained that sometimes in academia that people got protective and even aggressive about their turf. If Beacon seemed unconcerned about Largerfellow, he seemed worried about his own research. The recent study had failed to replicate previous results. We brainstormed reason why the study hadn’t gone as expected and ways to improve the experiment.

I did not have the knowledge or experience of Dr Beacon (or most of the others in the room), but to me most of the ideas seemed to be utter nonsense. Each idea made the experiment more complex. Every suggestion pulled the hypothesis to greater and greater abstraction. In my novice, untrained opinion the more we tried desperately to salvage the study, the closer we brought it to meaninglessness.

Even though Beacon gave all ideas a fair hearing, he seemed like a man sinking in to a hole. I didn’t know how critical this research was to Beacon or his position, but I had heard rumors that he was considering going back to his home country.

One clear decision came from that meeting. We had to calibrate the audio files. The experiment relied on an audio file happy, sad, angry, and joyful tones. We thought we knew which was which, but perhaps we had assumed too much. We needed a group of student to listen to the audio and grade each voice tone as negative or positive.

We brought undergraduates into a room fifteen at a time and made them listen to 45 minute recordings of a woman saying different words with different inflections:

Cancer (joy), Love (ecstasy), Hate (anger), Fun (despair), Failure (Joy), Happiness (anger), Success (ecstasy)

The students had a worksheet and graded each word for positive or negative tone.

positive, positive, negative, negative, positive, negative, positive

Shannon and I worked together for several sessions. We instructed them to take a worksheet and pencil and to listen:

Cancer (joy), Love (ecstasy), Hate (anger), Fun (despair), Failure (Joy), Happiness (anger), Success (ecstasy), Cancer (joy), Love (ecstasy), Hate (anger), Fun (despair), Failure (Joy), Happiness (anger), Success (ecstasy)

For nearly an hour:

Cancer (joy), Love (ecstasy), Hate (anger), Fun (despair), Failure (Joy), Happiness (anger), Success (ecstasy)

They hated it.

The students looked to Shannon and I with naked hostility. We tried to look neutral, adopting the frozen facades of objective scientists. We were not insensitive to their pain, but we knew it could be much worse. There was another version of this task. Some worried that emotionally charged words like “Hate” or “Love” would influence perception of the emotional tone. A second recording had been made. This time the words were distorted, so but the tone remained.

Wahh, Oohh (joy), Meahh (ecstasy), TRR (anger), RUM (despair), FEFF-reee (Joy), Mer-mer RA (anger), Zooooe (ecstasy), Wahh, Oohh (joy), Meahh (ecstasy), TRR (anger), RUM (despair), FEFF-reee (Joy), Mer-mer RA (anger), Zooooe (ecstasy), Wahh, Oohh (joy), Meahh (ecstasy), TRR (anger), RUM (despair), FEFF-reee (Joy), Mer-mer RA (anger), Zooooe (ecstasy)

After only a few minutes the room filled with frustration and contempt. The students looked at us, their eyes begging us to end their suffering. They saw us as tormentors, but they had no idea of the depths of our own pain. We sat in that room hour after hour masters of a table of hostile students awash in the dadaist nonsense of our chosen field of study.

Wahh, Oohh (joy), Meahh (ecstasy), TRR (anger), RUM (despair), FEFF-reee (Joy), Mer-mer RA (anger), Zooooe (ecstasy), Wahh, Oohh (joy), Meahh (ecstasy), TRR (anger), RUM (despair), FEFF-reee (Joy), Mer-mer RA (anger), Zooooe (ecstasy), Wahh, Oohh (joy), Meahh (ecstasy), TRR (anger), RUM (despair), FEFF-reee (Joy), Mer-mer RA (anger), Zooooe (ecstasy)

Shannon and I looked across the table at each other. Neither of us would become psychologists.

Even as my hopes for a meaningful career faded, I had obtained some minor victor. At my night job, I had collected quite a lot of bottles and cans. I’d turned them in collected the cash. That night after dumping the trash and wiping down toilets, I met Michael and Shannon at Duncan Donut. There are few things sweater than sharing a dozen free donuts at 3am with your best friends.

One comment

  1. Leyla Cohlmia says:

    Interesting reading. Liked the way information was gathered about how words are said or not said. Found some grammar errors that would get fixed in editing. Thanks.

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