One of the most common words in our contemporary vocabulary is ‘experience’. It appears in an amazing variety of contexts, especially in education; the student experience, experiential learning, and so-on. I learned recently that there is even such a thing as a ‘navigational experience’ – i.e. how easy a website is to use. There is a whole branch of Psychology, called Transpersonal Psychology, which is concerned with peak or ‘awakening’ experiences, which transcend or transform ‘normal’ consciousness. This focus on experience stresses the importance of the subjective point of view – how things look and feel to us, what things matter to us, and what effect they have on the individual.
The concern with experience, in a Psychological context is, in part, a reaction against the radical Behaviourism which was the dominant approach within the discipline until the 1960’s, and is still influential in a modified form today (in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for example). At its simplest, this approach is concerned with how we respond to external stimuli – which is why it is also sometimes referred to as ‘S-R Psychology’. The most famous stimulus response experiment is the so-called ‘Skinner Box’, which involves a rat in a cage, with a small tube containing food pellets controlled by a lever. The aim of the experiment is to condition the rat into pushing the lever (the response) when the experimenter drops a pellet into the tube (the stimulus).
Now, a rat is not capable of expressing to us what her experience of the process is (one might suppose it is not a positive one!). For this form of Psychology, this does not matter, as only the observed behaviour is important. Radical behaviourism was not concerned with human subjective experience either, and assumed that human and rat Psychology were essentially the same. Human activities, like learning languages or riding bicycles might appear more complicated, but basically followed the same pattern. So what people do is simply a collection of responses to external stimuli (such as the French teacher shouting at you when you get your French verbs wrong or repeatedly crashing into a tree until you learn to use the brake on your bike).
From the 1960’s onwards, there was a backlash against this form of Psychology, which, at its most extreme, dismissed the idea of subjective experience entirely, considering it to be a mere illusion. Humanistic psychology, associated with Carl Rogers, insisted on the importance of the subjective dimension and on the need for ‘congruence’ – in other words our behaviour and our inner self, our inner experience, need to be in harmony for us to live happy, fulfilled lives. In a rather different context, the Brazillian educationalist Paolo Freire developed the concept of ‘generative themes’. Instead of teaching from a set curriculum, he would get groups of landless peasants or urban poor to discuss the central worries and concerns in their lives and build an educational programme around these themes.
There is however a fundamental difference between these two approaches. Even though both Rogers and Freire were concerned with experience, the former focusses on the individual, whereas the latter was concerned with overcoming the limits of individual experience. Latin American community Psychologists inspired by Freire had to address feelings of guilt, anxiety and worthlessness from people who felt that the poverty, exclusion and oppression they faced were a result of their own inadequacy – that they were ‘failed’ human beings. For these Psychologists, encouraging group discussion between people in a similar situation was part of a process of ‘deculpabilisation’ – when you realise that everyone in the room has had the same experiences as you do, you begin to see that the problem is not an individual one. Through this process, people could begin to locate their individual experience in a context – of poverty, exclusion and violence. Confronting this external context through collective protest and community action was then part and parcel of individual psychic healing and reconstruction.
So the question we have to ask is – does experience have limits ? The work of Freire and his colleagues suggests that our individual subjective feelings and understandings of a situation can be distorted (and even harmful to us) when they lack the ‘bigger picture’ which can come from collective understandings of the same situation. So, in all the talk about ‘valuing experience’ what kind of experience are we talking about ? To suggest a possible answer, I’d like to discuss another kind of ‘box’, not the Skinner type, with rats in, but one familiar to many of us in our working lives – the office cubicle. This is generally more comfortable than the Skinner Box, as it has a chair, a table and maybe a few personal possessions as well as the inevitable ‘phone and computer. However, the phone and PC are, arguably, not so dissimilar from the food tube and lever in the Skinner Box – we are fed constant stimuli (emails, spreadsheets, calls from customers) to which we are expected to respond – and like the rat in the box, we tend to have little control over the frequency of the stimuli, or their timing. When we are freed from this particular ‘box’, many of us then hop in another ‘box’ – a car- where we respond to other stimuli – traffic lights, pedestrians, roadworks – on our journey home. Finally, we arrive home often to collapse in front of the television (or nowadays often a TV/laptop), which is sometimes referred to as ‘the box’…
Let’s think for a minute about the kind of ‘experience’ that might be produced by a day, a week or a working life spent moving between all these ‘boxes’. The first thing we notice is how isolated these environments are. There is little direct social contact. There is no-one to share these experiences with. This makes it likely that we will experience any anger or frustration at all those unanswered emails and looming deadlines as a personal failing – lack of time management, lack of motivation, even lack of intelligence. In the race to get things done in our little work-boxes, and on the way home in our little car-boxes, we are likely to see other people (difficult customers, awkward pedestrians) as a nuisance, or an obstacle to be overcome. And we are likely to look for things to make our experience better – a faster more comfortable car, a nicer house…or a beach holiday to escape all these boxes.
At this point, we can ask whether our feelings of guilt, anger and frustration (at others as well as ourselves) are really our personal experiences ? If they are ‘responses’ to stimuli (work, travel, deadlines) then perhaps the frustration we endure is because of the lack of any truly personal experience in these situations. Rather like the poor rats in the experiment. And perhaps this is the gap which consumption then fills (with the promise of offering those missing experiences, on a sandy beach somewhere…).
To return to Transpersonal Psychology , which I mentioned at the beginning, it is true that this approach focuses on experience. But this is experience of a particular type, outside of daily routine. Awakening experiences for example often occur in situations of death, bereavement or trauma, where our everyday lives have broken down. Or they may occur as part of transformative spiritual practices (drumming, meditation) often undertaken in collective groups. So Transpersonal Psychology, and Critical approaches informed by Freire are not interested in experience as such, but experience as a tool of transformation.
Conrad Russell is Course Leader for the MA in Interdisciplinary Psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University