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Writing Under Influence (5-31-2017): Motion Sickness

Why people get motion sickness is still a mystery. There are two prevalent theories: a) sensory conflict between what you see/hear and motion detected by the vestibular system (inner ear). In an airplane or car, your inner ear signals you are moving but your eyes says you’re sitting still. b) distortion of postural stability. human body is never totally motionless, but this basic motion to keep us stable is disturbed when we are on vehicles.

But neither theory quite explains: a) the difference between, for instance, reading and not reading in a car, b) why motion sickness can be treated by focusing the gaze on the horizon, or being/pretending to be the driver, and c) why we normally don’t get motion sick from being on top of a rotating planet. In other words, why a particular state of focus/absorption—and not the presence of motion itself—alleviates sickness.

This suggests that the true cause of motion sickness is not so much motion itself or sensory conflict (though these might be conditions (e.g., cause: strike of a match; condition: presence of oxygen)) but discrepancies between the body perceived (through focus) and experienced. Motion sickness is a chronic disease of bodies inside bodies.

Focusing on the horizon or imagining you are the driver enlarges your body to the scale of the car by a mere focus of the gaze (drivers do this with their entire body). If you convert yourself to the body of the vehicle moving, you do not get motion sickness. But if body A inside body X is too absorbed in being a part of another body ensemble—through reading books or watching movies—the discrepancy between this body ensemble and the other body ensemble body A is embedded within, by being inside body X, is brought to the fore. It is the gap between these two body ensembles, one focused on and the other simply lived, that causes sickness. The conflict is not between senses but between body ensembles. In the case of planet rotation, it is the utter scale of the body that makes it difficult for the gap to foreground. That is to say, in order to induce motion sickness, the gap/conflict between bodies should preferably be within a certain scalar threshold, possible to both perceive and rearrange (with a mere focus) with ease. The rotation of the planet, from this perspective, usually remains transcendental to experience (Kant: that we feel the Earth is not moving is an epistemological fallacy we cannot get away with)—but only “usually,” since one does get motion sickness from the planet/ground moving, during earthquakes.

A body is not a physical machinery that exists as an object, but always a mesophysical ensemble activated through absorption. Through absorption/focus, a body can be separated from the larger body which it resides in. Absorption thus synchronizes/desynchronizes bodies—incorporation. Sex is an extreme act of absorptive mutual incorporation with another body. That is why one feels extremely left out (jealous) if not participating: a) he is left out of the body ensemble, and thus b) feels the loneliness of his body more.

Scalar thresholds for motion sickness probably exist for two related reasons: when the vehicle is much too large than the human “body,” it is a) perceived as a ground; and b) since motion also increases in scale, it is consequently felt less.

But why does the disassociation of bodies cause nausea/sickness? What is sickness? Sickness is a condition of not being in one’s body. Sickness is a conflict between bodies across scales. Influenza enters a body and decouples the existing coupling between bodies—it dissolves the state of absorption. In this, it is like the Brechtian method of alienation, which dissects the absorption between the audience’s focus and the play. An alien is what disturbs a pre-exiting body ensemble. An alien is alien to the pre-existing body ensemble. This is well depicted in the movie Aliens, which shows aliens basically as parasites which invades our bodies (body snatchers). This also leads to the imagery of the grotesque as being grounded in the disassociation of familiar body ensembles (disconnection of body limbs, for instance, though not only within one scale but across many scales).

Nausea induces throwing-up—the expulsion of foreign substances, bodies inside body.

Motion sickness is a problem for phenomenology. Despite all attempts to do away with all presuppositions (epoche) the Husserlian method presupposes that the ground for thought is stable: both in terms of the planet as well as in terms of the body. This presupposition constitutes a primordial, proto-absorption (inevitable epistemological fallacy). It conditions phenomenological epoche: the bracketing out of all presuppositions about the external world in order to solely focus on (absorb oneself) what appears to the phenomenologist as phenomena. Thus proto-absorption is a proto-presupposition that allows all other presuppositions. In a sense, kids enact phenomenological epoche every time they play video games. We do so when reading books. These are precisely activities that causes motion sickness if one does it when riding a car. In other words, phenomenological epoche, which is nothing other than one form of intense absorption, is prone to motion sickness, since it focuses intently on one body ensemble and completely detaches from all others that are nonetheless lived within. There must be a phenomenological account of motion sickness conducted under epoche.

Why/how are dancers trained to overcome motion sickness (Vertigo)? Body habituate over time (sailors become less susceptible to sea sickness). Vertigo consists in dissolving this habituation by extreme spinning (and consumption of alcohol, etc). But why does spinning cause motion sickness—isn’t one the driver, and one with the body when you spin? The prevalent theory explains it yet again with sensory conflict: ”When you spin, the fluid in these canals will spin around. If you stop suddenly, your body stops, but the fluid in your ears is still going. You think you’re still spinning, but your eyes are telling you that you’re not spinning.” But although this may explain why we cannot walk straight after spinning—loss of coordination and balance—it does not explain at all the fact that I start getting sick while I am spinning (and hence when the eyes are telling me I am spinning).

Again, the best explanation seems to be that it is about the dissociation of body ensembles. The coupling of the physical body and the planetary body is a matter of habit. Hence, when one changes the movement of physical body in relation to the ground, the familiar body ensemble collapses and sickness ensues (hence the same nausea can be caused by the ground moving—earthquake sickness). This explains also why it is possible to overcome nausea from spinning through training: re-habituation.

A done idea (a complementary piece for Vertigo): a dance piece that consists solely in training/habituating oneself to read in vehicles. It doesn’t require the “dancer” to move—but to be moved. But if the purpose is in habituating the body through movement, doesn’t this constitute a proper problematic for dance? Organize a workshop where participants attempt to overcome motion sickness.

From this standpoint, Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality can be rewritten as a theory of dance. Absorption through sensory focus couples bodies mesophysically. Fried claims the obliviousness that absorption entails distinguishes it from theatricality, where the actor is always conscious of the presence and gaze of exterior bodies. But this obliviousness is obviously the same obliviousness attained through phenomenology: it is the forgetting of other body ensembles that is nonetheless lived mesophysically.