Tag Archives: creativity

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Simulated Versus Real Experience

Is a day at Disneyland a “genuine” experience, or a kind of grand simulation:  one that is mostly manufactured with a potential range of outcomes that are heavily circumscribed?

The quarantine and shutdown of many businesses has sent Americans back to their homes and to pursuits both virtual and actual.  A recent news story about the resumption of some live sporting events offers an interesting test of whether we still notice the difference.

Presumably, a virtual or “designed” experience is one created specifically for an audience.  It’s usually constructed with specific goals, like selling a pleasurable event and profiting from it, but retaining only the the illusion of authentic experience.  Visiting a theme park tests the theory well.  Is a day at Disneyland a “genuine” experience, or a kind of grand simulation:  one that is mostly manufactured with a potential range of outcomes that are heavily circumscribed? These days, our real main streets hardly resemble the Orlando version.

Similarly, is a baseball game of real players in a stadium where the pandemic mandates that there be no fans still a “real” event to us, especially if the network carrying the game is “sweetening” its audio with fake crowd noise? Presumably, an audio technician matches the ebbs and flows of the action on the field with digital effects that mimic those used in a video game.  There might be a real game happening in real time at the site, but the game coming from your television would be an auditory fraud.

This is more or less the equivalent of a laugh track of recorded shills added to a situation comedy, as when character A enters stage left to peels of laughter and applause. Or it could take the form of a phoned-in user endorsement for products touted by hosts during a QVC promotion.

While we are at it, is a film a simulated experience?  If so, why don’t directors add audience reactions to their carefully constructed audio tracks? And what about the simple act of listening to recorded music? The staples of manufactured experiences surely remain strong; Netflix, videos and on-demand content streamed by YouTube are often cherished as sanity lifesavers.

All of this tests our susceptibility to succumb to any simulated event as a full representation of what lived experience looks like.

But there is also another narrative about people who have shunned simulated experiences for something closer to their real thing: bike rides around town, hikes in local parks, or socially-distanced picnics with friends. I also have friends who have more seriously taken up painting, writing, learning a foreign language, gardening, cooking and long-postponed home repairs.  Others have revisited their home libraries for another look at a favorite book. I’ve also heard hopeful stories of children who don’t want to spend any more time on a screens that have been used for homework and instruction from their schools.  The want their birthright back: to engage in activities where they retain the spontaneity that comes when the outcome of an experience is not already decided for them.

One of the hopeful long term effects of this pandemic may be that more of us have a new appreciation for the value of finding our own paths that will allow us to exercise the mostly unused muscles of creativity and personal innovation.

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The Caffeine Engine

[Though many Americans have turned coffee into a bizarre kind of fountain drink, coffee retains its hold on us. This piece from 2015 is a reminder of its efficiency at helping reluctant neurons fire.]

New Yorker Cartoonist Tom Cheney obviously loved coffee. A lot of his cartoons featured the stuff front and center.  My favorite was entitled the “Writer’s Food Pyramid,” with a food-group triangle of “essentials” for scribes that would give most dietitians severe heartburn. His pyramid was a play on those dietary charts that usually adorned classroom walls in the 80s.  At the wide base of Cheney’s list were  “The Caffeines” of cola, coffee and tea.  They anchored the rest of a pyramid of necessities which included “The Nicotines,” “The Alcohols” and “Pizza” at the very top.  Tough nicotine from tobacco has lost of most of its charms, the rest still make the perfect fuel cell for a cultural worker.

Many of us owe the completion of at least a few big projects to the caffeine that the brain needs more than the stomach.


Cheney obviously knew a lot about writers with their old typewriters, which movie mogul Jack Warner once hilariously dismissed as “Schmucks with Underwoods.” But there’s actually some method in all of this madness.  Communication—at least the process of generating ideas—is clearly helped the spur of this addictive substance.  We have more than a few studies to suggest that writers and others who create things can indeed benefit from the stimulant.  Notwithstanding a recent New Yorker article suggesting just the opposite, caffeine is likely to enhance a person’s creative powers if it is used in moderation. I’m sure I’m not alone in owing the completion of at least a few books to the sludge that now makes my stomach rebel.  As for decaf: it seems like the food equivalent of a non-sequitur.

It turns out the stimulant has a complex effect on human chemistry.  As James Hamblin explains in a June, 2013 Atlantic article, caffeine is weaker than a lot of stimulants such as Adderall, which can actually paralyze a person into focusing for too long on just thing. It’s moderate amounts that do the most good.  Even the New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova conceded the point.  She noted that it “boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration … Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion.”

To put it simply, the synapses happen more easily when that triple latte finally kicks in.  A morning cup dutifully carried to work even ranks over keeping a phone in one hand.

But there is an exception. A person facing a live audience in a more or less formal situation probably should avoid what amounts to a double dose of stimulation, given the natural increase of adrenaline that comes when we face a public audience.  For most of us a modest adrenaline rush is actually functional in helping us gain oral fluency.  It works to our benefit because it makes us more alert and maybe just a little smarter.  But combining what is functionally two stimulants can be counter-productive.  They can make a presenter wired tighter than the high “C” of a piano keyboard.  We all know the effects.  Instead of the eloquence of a heightened conversation, we get a jumble of ideas that are delivered fast and with too little explanation.  In addition, tightened vocal folds mean that the pitch of our voice will usually rise as well, making even a baritone sound like a Disney character.

All of us are different.  But to play the odds to your advantage, it is probably better to reserve the use of caffeine for acts of creation more than performance.