Sunday, March 21, 2010

The role of contrast and adjustment.

I was starting to think that this day would never come, but I think that I am finally, really truly, adjusted to living here...

I am just coming up to the half way point in my trip, and following the long dip of "confronting deeper issues" which included the burglary and frustrations related to local police and government agencies as well as pettier issues like food and the availability of peanut butter, I am finally settled.

I know where to find things that I want and need, I have a reliable internet connection and link to loved ones back home, I have adjusted to the pace, food, and language of Italian life, and I frequently forget that I am even in Italy, despite being surrounded by Italian people, language, and culture.

There is a concept in biology that explains how our nervous systems function to supply our brains with useful information, and the concept is that of nerve cells and action potentials.  Biology is really interesting, and nerves might be the coolest bit of biology in my opinion.  Despite abandoning medicine for business, my old pre-med anatomy and physiology class lesson on action potentials has really stuck with me.

The idea is that, for an organism, detecting changes is really the most useful thing.  If something happens often enough, or for long enough, there is a diminishing value in our brains spending some of our limited scope of attention focusing on that thing.  So for something that becomes routine, we become almost (almost) unaware of it.

For example, when you put on a watch or a pair of socks, you are immediately aware of the sensation and the presence of the objects... the temperature, weight, pressure, etc.  After a few minutes, though, you have no awareness of the socks or watch even being there.  That's because the nerves in your wrist/feet literally stop sending information to your brain signaling the presence of those objects.  This frees up mental capacity for you to focus on other things, and is overall a useful trait in organisms, which is why it evolved.

A similar line of thinking explains why people living in a homogenous community can grow up unaware of certain traits, until those traits are contrasted by the presence of something different.  This could apply to a child growing up in an all white community, an all Amish community, a cult, a life of extreme privilege, or any other upbringing that happens to exclude an awareness of people who lack that trait or social value.  Up until the introduction of something different, the traits common to the population have no frame of reference from which to differ, and there is no value, almost no meaning, in identifying them.  The presence of contrast changes our world view and even the way we see ourselves.

My point, after such a rambling post, is that in addition to feeling more or less comfortable and content in my new home, the periodic lack of awareness of being in Italy is, to me, a profound indication that I have adapted to being here in a very deep, very basic, very fundamental way.   Certainly there continue to be moments of frustration or confusion, as I continue to encounter new and unexpected aspects of life here, but overall I really think I have turned a corner with adjusting.

It's very interesting to me that as unique and personal as my experiences of life in Milan have been, they have also more or less followed a very predictable and expected trajectory of cultural adjustment that has been scientifically charted in the diagram I have been following throughout my stay.  Also interesting to me is that I have a number of friends also studying abroad right now, either in Milan or in other European countries, and our experiences have been, while not identical, very parallel.  The fact that psychologists and sociologists can study something as abstract and ever changing as culture and personal identity, and reliably graph it in a way that transcends personal experience, is something that continues to leave me in awe.

Science is really quite remarkable, if you think about it.

Pictures to come, enough rambling for now.  ; )



1 comment:

  1. WOAH! I was literally in the middle of writing my own blog about adjusting to life in Denmark when I read your update! Also, I am stealing this awesome graph to put on my own blog...

    I'm so glad to read about someone else adjusting to the same issues I am. I mean, I'm sure it happens to a lot of people who are studying here in DK, but we never sit around talking about it, even though we really should.

    When do you leave Milan?