Understanding Overwhelm

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Before I start reflecting on my second barbershop Convention of the month, I’d like to share some of the thoughts I had while trying to understand the impact the first one had on me. Not having the stamina to do either as much listening or socialising as I would normally expect is quite easily explained by the phrase ‘out of practice’ – but what does this mean in this context? Why have activities that don’t require a huge amount of exertion become cognitively demanding?

According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the process by which we handle input from our senses as we live in the world is one of prediction and verification. That is, we don’t just wait for sights and sounds to come in through our eyes and ears and then try to make sense of them, we carry round a model of how we understand the world to be, and just check the incoming sensory data against it to see if we were right. Most of the time it is: I turn my head and my coffee cup is still where I left it, and thus requires no new cognitive resources dedicated to it.

Processing sensory data takes energy, and so this system works to minimise the energy expended on things that do not require attention. We register changes to keep our mental models updated, and the magnitude of the change determines the strength of response when we register it.

This helps us understand, just in a general sense, why being out of practice at going places and doing things is cognitively demanding. We have become accustomed to working with quite limited subsets of the world in our mental models. We know the rest of the world still exists, but if we’re not going somewhere, our brains won’t waste energy on it, and that bit of our mental model becomes dormant. This is why it felt so wildly over-stimulating to travel 3 miles to Screwfix for a click-and-collect in the middle of February last year, when I’d not even been in a car for 7 weeks.

We’re well beyond that stage of re-emergence now of course, but our brains still had a lot of work to do at Convention. Those of us who have been to these events repeatedly have a well-developed mental model of what to expect, and it usually gets updated at least annually. But with our last in-person event having been in 2019, there were a lot more changes than usual to process.

Changes to people: children grow a lot in 3 years, and the rest of us age visibly. Changes to ensembles: many choruses were much smaller than in previous years, and the experience of interruption and resumption has in many cases changed the chorus sound. Changes to social expectations: we needed to negotiate anew the hugging protocols around people’s varying levels of comfort and mutual affection. Some of these changes are just the effect of the passage of time, some are a direct result of the pandemic experience; many are a mixture of the two.

And of course Barrett proposes her model of perception in the context of explaining how emotions work. There are two aspects to this that made the weekend demanding. First is the simple reason that it is disjunction from expectation that evokes bigger responses: all the extra the cognitive work updating our models of our BABS community made what is always an emotionally intense experience even more so.

And there’s also the point that emotions are socially-constructed. How to feel about things, what our affective responses mean, is mediated by language within social groups. (Barrett focuses on verbal language for this; those of us who have worked in the semiotics of music suspect that other signifying systems are also involved…)

And none of us knew exactly how to feel this time. There were some obvious responses shared up front by everyone: ‘It’s great to be back’ was a phrase we told each other a lot on arrival. And there was a good deal of readily-shared joy. But there was also loss: missing people who weren’t there, yearning after partially-atrophied capacities, worry for those who had to pull out because of covid. We looked after each other well, but the emotional work to be done was significant. The well-known and mutually-understood modes of emotional response needed updating along with the rest of our models of the barbershop world.

Like life within our ensembles, the event was poised ambiguously between two sets of meanings. Was it a milestone on our return to normality, or was it a milestone on our journey into a new reality? Both narratives make sense of certain aspects of the experience, but not others. The time will come when we’ll be able to look back and make sense of this weekend in ways that integrate it into our overall life journeys; for now we can only recognise it as a key moment in the process of healing and reconstruction, albeit one whose significance may only become clear in retrospect.

As usual Liz, you manage to find the subtle flavours beneath the icing!
I was excited about convention but I’d forgotten the insane noise levels at the afterglows, they drained my energy and I retreated. Hugs needed to be preceded by advanced warnings (outstretched arms and raised eyebrow) before diving in, in case the recipient was fearful of contact.
Hopefully Covid is now reaching the point of being, in most cases, just another annoying virus rather than the potential death threat it began as. Next year perhaps it will all feel normal again.

I think (hope!) it will be a lot more normal as we get used to this again. Even if normal ends up a bit different from in the past, it won't be the first time after such a long gap next time, so less of a shock to the system.

We'll get our stamina back :-)

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