Monday, October 26, 2009

Learning To See Through Travel

Can We 'Learn To See?': Study Shows Perception Of Invisible Stimuli Improves With Training

ScienceDaily (Oct. 21, 2009) — Although we assume we can see everything in our field of vision, the brain actually picks and chooses the stimuli that come into our consciousness. A new study in the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology's Journal of Vision reveals that our brains can be trained to consciously see stimuli that would normally be invisible. [Click Here to read full story]

Many years ago (many, many, in fact), I attended a meditation retreat in the hills near Clear Lake north of the SFO Bay Area.  There was a young guy on this retreat, in his early 20s, who was able to see aura around people’s bodies.  He did not need to do anything, this ability was just natural. 

Now in those days, when I was younger, I had a pretty good ability to see things at night – much better than almost anyone else I had met. So I kind of envied his aura seeing ability.  But he thought nothing of it – he told me that it really doesn’t mean much, he is just able to see them.

So, a few decades later, I still can’t see auras, and might night vision has declined as my need to wear glasses has increased (since I started using computers).  But now comes this story on ScienceDaily about how German researchers have shown that the eye can detect objects even though the brain does not recognize the object as being seen. This has a couple of fascinating possibilities:

(1) Our eyes may be detecting objects and fields of view just beyond the visible spectrum, in the infra-red and ultraviolet range, or in a dark field with no visible light, that we are totally unaware of, but which may still impress our brain, behavior and experience.

(2) We may be able to learn to see these objects of fields of information if we are trained or practiced in doing so. (This is the direction that the German researchers are moving – to help people with blind spots.)

As cool as that sounds, I no longer have my old meditation patience that I think it would probably take to master such skills.

However, I do see implications of this phenomenon – of learning to see what we otherwise would not – in my interests in the tourism and travel experience. These implications are:

(1)  People travel to see parts of the world, parts of the human existence, parts of the planetary geography that we otherwise would not be able to see.  We drive to travel because our monkey curiosity wants to fill in the blind spots of terra incognita.

(2) We use guidebooks, online video guides, and local human guides to help us to see what we would not see if we were to visit a place without any interpretation.  This is what semiotics refers to a the “sign” or “signifier” – it is the name and meaning that we humans assign to sites and sights that, in turn, gives us deep, existential experiences of those sites and sights.

(3) We also reject the guides and the guidebooks in an effort to gain a pure and direct experience of places – especially of the spontaneous and unplanned surprises that new places have the potential to offer us.  And related to this, are new identities and roles that arise in ourselves, that we may never knew were their, but which the liminal experience of traveling away from home, can sometimes show us.

(4) Some of us learn about broader issues of travel and tourism, especially sustainability issues, to make us more aware of our impacts and to better understand how tourism shapes places and people (both the hosts and the guests).

All of these are exercises in geographic visioning – of stretching our normal vision (and understanding) of the world, its places, its environments and ourselves – and to see and understand them in ways that we may never have considered were possible.  (Although, tourism advertisers also know this and flash images of possibilities that are often tempting, if fundamentally shallow.)

So, here we are.  At one level we are curious monkeys wanting to see what is hidden behind the peek-a-boo of distant places. At another level we are stretching our cognitive skill, stretching our brains, perhaps to lead us to a more aware planet that is hopefully able to manage, if not solve, the global issues that we all share today.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Are you a Tourism Extremist?

Extremists More Willing To Share Their Opinions, Study Finds - ScienceDaily (Oct. 21, 2009) — People with relatively extreme opinions may be more willing to publicly share their views than those with more moderate views, according to a new study. [Click Here for the full story.]

The story linked above is about a study at Stanford University in which students with extreme views on an issue were more vocal in expressing their opinions when they thought that the majority of their peers leaned in their direction.  There were generally silent if they thought that their peers held moderate or opposite views to theirs.

While we all have met people who are willing to express their "extreme" views even if they are clearly in the minority, they are the exception. The problem is that human nature assumes that the most vocal are expressing the dominant opinion of a group, whereas in reality, they actually represent an extreme position.  Thus, we (those of us on the left) assume that the talking heads on Fox News represent the typical Republican Party views in the US, when they really are a marginal extreme.

So what does this have to do with tourism?  Off the top of my head, I see the following implications:

We (tourism professionals) often assume that everyone want to travel and everyone is supportive of tourism because that is what seems to be the majority. In reality, there people's opinions on travel and tourism run a continuum from no interest in travel to travel as a lifestyle, and from no support for tourism to tourism as a foundation of the new service economy (cf. Urry's discussion of the "service class").  Making the pro-tourism and pro-travel perspective dominant has enormous impacts on macro economic priorities (such as transit and destination branding), community development decisions (where and what to spend tax dollars on), and human behavior (defining the range of possible leisure time activities). 

And this has resulted in major sustainability challenges, from the massive greenhouse gas emissions of long haul air and cruise ship travel, to change in traditional cultures from tourists visiting remote destinations.

Do we ever seriously even consider a no-tourism option as a lifestyle, as a form of community development, as what might be best for a destination? What kind of world would that be like ... possibly a more sustainable one?