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The Journal of Sonic Studies
Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Marie Højlund; Sofie Kinch: ALARMING ATMOSPHERES - EMBODIED SOUND HABITUATION AS DESIGN STRATEGY IN A NEURO-INTENSIVE CARE UNIT

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol06/nr01/a02

4. Developing Embodied Sound Habituation as Design Strategy

4.1 The Concept of Atmospheres

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Using the concept of atmospheres as our theoretical starting point, we pay attention to the multisensory stimuli of a particular place and try to understand the affective impact of these stimuli on the people involved, a process we found particularly relevant in the hospital setting, filled with new and unfamiliar sensory impressions. The concept of atmospheres addresses the lived experience of people situated in a particular place. According to the German philosopher Gernot Böhme, atmospheres are constantly emerging in-between subjects and objects (Böhme 1993). The atmosphere belongs neither in the sphere of the object nor in that of the subject; rather, it is a co-presence that exists within the terms of the subject/object engagement. The German expression “sich befinden” and Danish “at befinde sig” contains this double in-situ relationship in the sense that they refer to both being somewhere as well as to how one feels about being there (Albertsen 2012: 2). Perception is therefore understood as an embodied and temporal practice. Thus, atmospheres are not static states existing beforehand in a room, but rather an ongoing and temporal negotiation between the sensing body in relation to others and the environment. Therefore, the dynamic unfolding of an atmosphere is a fundamental feature of finding one’s place and thereby making sense of a place over time.

4.2 Rhythms - A Dynamic Perspective on Atmospheres

Jean-Paul Thibaud stresses how atmospheres are closely connected to embodied and temporal functions. We do not passively sense an atmosphere; the atmosphere sets the tone of a situation and resonates with the sensing body in constantly shifting consonant and dissonant relationships (Thibaud 2011). In the search for shared words to talk about atmospheres, Thibaud points to metaphors related to sound and music, revealing a common structural relationship to the temporal in both the worlds of sound and atmospheres (Thibaud 2011: 1). Sound and theories of sound and listening could therefore lead to concrete methods of working with the dynamic aspects of investigating and designing atmospheres.

As presented in our article “Designing Dynamic Atmospheres - Highlighting Temporality as Design Concern within Interaction Design” (Højlund and Kinch 2012), the translation of a temporal awareness into concrete parameters operational in a design process presents a challenge, when working with atmospheres, in interaction design. Temporality is often approached either as an unwieldy subcategory of other concepts like space or technology or as something fleeting and outside the body (Højlund and Kinch 2012). Addressing this challenge, we propose an elaborated connectedness of the temporal with the felt body, as atmospheres emerge in resonance with the body. This awareness can help the designer to rethink the temporal as an embodied way of experiencing the production of space and not only consider it as something fleeting outside us.

In his book Rhythmanalysis – Space, Time and Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre uses rhythms as an analytical tool, describing how “everywhere where there is interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy, there is rhythm” (Lefebvre 2004: 69). Presence is therefore innately temporal in character and can only be grasped through the analysis of rhythm. It is important to note that “rhythm” refers not only to traditional concepts of rhythm related to sound and music, but also as constituting a pervasive phenomenon emerging in the ecology between human and surroundings.

The core concept of listening invites us to listen to the body, buildings, the environment, and so forth, in order to make us more sensitive to times than to spaces (Lefebvre 2004: 22), thereby expanding our awareness of phases, periods, shifts and recurrences. By listening to the temporalities and the shifts of a dynamic atmosphere, we can gain an attentive ear, enabling us to make sense and order of chaos by differentiating the multisensory inputs of the dynamic atmosphere. Attentive listening is obtained through what might be described as a sort of meditational practice, connected to an artistic practice, of engaging with the surrounding rhythms in order to resonate with them in a consonant way. We can only listen to and perceive our surroundings and their rhythms as being fast or slow in relation to other rhythms; and given that we are always in a body, the rhythms of the body are an important reference in our experience of an atmosphere.

This way of understanding rhythm changes the underlying presumption of the perceiver as merely adapting to the tonality of a place, and instead suggests that the atmosphere is not placed either inside or outside, but emerges in the shifting relation between the interconnected rhythms of the self, the other, and the environment. Through maintaining an awareness of these different conceptualisations of rhythms in the design process and by understanding the basic dynamic identity of the atmosphere as being connected to sound as phenomenon, the temporal aspects become parameters accessible in the design process.

4.3 Embodied Sound Habituation

I feel that there are two different ways to experience the place [NIA, eds.], because when I have been off for a longer period and come back, the place affects me differently than during everyday work life. After a holiday, I often have this … Gosh, do I really have to go in there? (Nurse at NIA)

Lefebvre’s theory on the meditative process of developing an attentive ear by listening to the rhythms of the world as well as those of the body resonates with the concept of habituation. In positioning our understanding of habituation, Immanuel Kant’s construction of habit, as “a negative counterpoint to the processes of human self-making” (Bennett, Dodsworth, Noble, Poovey and Watkins 2013: 7), is abandoned. Instead, we follow the trajectory of habit and habituation as presented by Gabriel Tarde, who “accounts the roles of suggestion, imitation and repetition in the constitution of the social” (Bennett et al. 2013: 10). Within psychology, habituation is referred to as a basic psychological learning process wherein there is a decrease in response to a sense stimulus after a subject is repeatedly exposed to it, indicating a loss of interest (Berk 2008: 136). Thus, habituation is a natural process, where focus on particular aspects of the environment thus shift into the background of awareness, leaving room for other aspects to inhabit the foreground of attention. Approaching atmospheric experiences from a habituation perspective points towards the observation that the users form no socio-culturally “homogeneous audience” (Albertsen 2012), thus it is a way to acknowledge how our own habitual background continuously shapes our individual and contingent experience of the atmospheres.

Moving into the discourse on sonic environments, Barry Truax stresses how our innate ability to shift sounds to the background of awareness depends on habituation, which involves memory and associations. For our perceptual system to be able to shift specific sounds to the background of awareness, they must be habituated, meaning that they are expected and predictable in a certain context (Truax 2001: 21). This type of background listening demands that we are able to easily detect and separate sounds from each other, so we won’t have to consciously struggle with the environment in order to make sense of it, which can lead to the feeling of being alienated or separated from the surroundings. It is therefore not only the perception of the specific characteristics of the sound that influences whether they are put in the background of awareness, but also the way in which they are habitually perceived (Truax 2001: 22). It is, however, important to stress here that the auditory system is also our most effective alarm system. As we are continually monitoring the sensory background for changes, a sudden auditory change in the environment will trigger an automatic startle reflex that is most likely to redirect an unexpected stimulus to the foreground of attention, making it impossible to ignore (Horowitz 2013: 111).

Thibaud underlines the importance of reflecting not only on the different categories of listening but also how, and under what conditions, we manage to shift from one type of listening to another (Thibaud 1998: 2). A design that responds to actively changing listening modes requires an alternative sound design strategy, however, not by redesigning the concrete sounds in the environment or by covering them, but instead by altering the attitude of the users towards the existing sonic environment. For the designer to induce such a change, through facilitating user coping with complex and alarming atmospheres, an understanding of how to influence the autonomous and conscious habituation processes for environmental sounds is needed.

By acknowledging habituation’s connectedness to rhythms and resonances as a fundamental and dynamic quality inherent in finding one's place, we underline once more that atmospheres emerge as rhythms in-between the body and its surroundings through an ongoing temporal negotiation. Embodied sound habituation as design strategy invites the user to develop an attentive ear through controlling prominent rhythms of the environment in an active and embodied way and becoming capable of synchronising them with her own bodily rhythms. The users now become co-creators unfolding the atmosphere. The habituation process is actively aided, guided and accelerated by a design artefact. The advantage of designing specifically for this process is that the habituated sounds can move to the background of awareness, leaving perceptual room to what the user wants to take the foreground of attention, here the meeting with the relative.