by Emily Öhlund
In this article I explore the themes of altered states and surreal experiences. This will be grounded in the context of the mass digitalisation of human interaction during the pandemic, while also considering the wider implications for the neurodivergent population.
Filtered out and blending in
Fig.1, Zoom presence
Living in lockdown today, communication still flourishes, but without the senses physically connecting. With the majority of communication being non-verbal, we are left unsure if we can trust our eyes and ears. The sensory system heavily relied on to interpret human behaviour has become disorientated. We don’t always know what is wrong, but something is missing, time and time again - the senses have been denied their normal space in the conversation and have become misleading, muted or absent altogether. 

The mass of sensors we call our bodies constantly feeds our unconscious information, helping us to relate to one another intuitively. The body is integral for reading and reacting to people.  Removing physical contact places all the information gathering burden on what we see and hear through the screen. When something doesn’t look right, we have begun to doubt our senses and override them with logic.

In this new communication paradigm peculiarity is expected. Misunderstandings anticipated. The delicate touches of persuasion all but impossible. We have become accustomed to the peculiar in our pandemic meetings, both the digital and non-digital interactions feel off. This inexplicable strangeness can be hard to pinpoint, and yet is felt by everyone, from the most intimate moments between families, all the way to the most formal of interactions between judges and barristers. Against all our natural urges we are distant.

Normalising the bizarre
Fig.2, ‘I am not a cat’
© Judge Roy Ferguson, 394th Judicial District Court of Texas.

When the story went viral about the Texas lawyer Rod Ponton appearing in court depicted as a cat, initial instincts were to laugh at the sheer bizarreness of this serious legal professional, reduced to a timorous cat. Through trembling lips, the cat assured the court that ‘I am here, I am not a cat’ and that he would continue with his case regardless. The only thing perhaps more surreal than that cat addressing a judge, was when the judge agreed to hear The Cat’s case. Society as a whole has adapted to the bizarre and reality has been compromised. The abnormal has been normalised.
The upside-down congressman
Fig.3 ‘I’m sorry… Mr. Emmer-Are you OK?’
© U.S. House Committee on Financial Services

Not long after, US congressman Tom Emmer appeared at a House Financial Services Committee meeting floating upside down in what looked like a homage to the Wizard of Oz. Floating head congressman Emmer also went ahead with his address, until someone finally stopped him. The real farce happens when these professionals behave as though nothing is wrong, going about their business hoping no one will notice or care. And to an extent they don’t care. These instances, while comical and absurd, suggest that we have come to accept a ludicrous degree of the surreal in our lives. The emperor has no clothes on, and we know it, but there’s nothing to do but carry on.
The elusive senses
Zoom interactions present problems on a more elusive level too. Interfacing over cyberspace disorientates intuition. It starves our instincts of its main resource - the senses. While it may assuage our lack of contact it does not satisfy our deeper need for sensory interaction. We can of course still see and hear but it is a fractured picture, a distorted image, a broken sound. We have to piece together what is left and form an impression ourselves. 
‘Computers can take your ideas and throw them back at you in a more rigid form, forcing you to live within that rigidity’
Jared Lanier, You are Not a Gadget
I discussed these zoom mishaps with a London barrister who wished to remain nameless. According to him moving online seems to be affecting litigators on a much more subtle level. Barristers who consider themselves showman of sorts enjoy performing in front of the judge, it is a talent which takes decades to perfect. This is an integral part of the skill of a well-seasoned barrister. Zoom trials diminish a barrister’s presence and gravitas. So much so that they are losing clients. It is the barrister’s air of expertise and experience that assures clients that they can win their cases – a quality completely lost over zoom. Cold hard facts travel through cyberspace, but the subtleties of persuasion do not.
Stepping off the treadmill
‘In these extremes of loneliness, no one could hope for help from his neighbour, and everyone remained alone with his anxieties’
Camus, The Plague

Crashing on my sofa at the end of each day in lockdown, I glance around at the toys, books and objects strewn around the room. Too tired to get up, too tired to tidy, too tired to care. I just stare at the mess and the mess stares back at me. In this moment my mind returns to a song by Malvina Reynolds that plagued me about 6 months after having my daughter, and I realise- I’ve felt like this before. Over and over, it plays, and it won’t leave me alone.
‘Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same,
There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And all the people in the houses
All went to university,
Where they were put into boxes
And they all came out the same
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same
Melvina Reynolds, Little Boxes

And so, it goes on. While the song primarily satirizes suburbia, it goes much further than that. It highlights the cyclical treadmill which people voluntarily adhere to. And the meaninglessness of it all. Like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the mountain only to watch it roll down again time and time again. It criticises standardisation and takes you on a macro scale tour of our modern existence until you are faced with the cold hard reality of how monotonous and insignificant it all is. It’s an unsettling feeling. A reality we will do anything to ignore.
“Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt” Poet Juvenal
The Colosseum was built to provide free entertainment to the Roman people in order to distract and satiate them during hard times - an exciting alternative reality where they could lose themselves. The world has become our Colosseum. Built to distract and entertain us with as much diversion of every kind as we can handle. But now the Colosseum is closed; locked, bolted and boarded up; and I find myself once again taking that macro scale tour in my mind, standing back and asking myself - what is the meaning of it all?
‘you have recognised, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering’
Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

The gift and curse of the pandemic is introspection and dicing with the realisation that life is absurd. An unsettling sensation felt by people across the globe, whether they like it or not. That strange emptiness in the pit of your stomach when you repeat the same routine for the 200th time in a row and have nothing to show for it. No valuable stimulation or growth. A thankless exercise in survival and maintenance alone. This is a feeling amplified a thousand-fold in situations involving confinement. 

This is not the first time I have felt this way. The last time I felt it was all those years ago, with my 6-month-old baby. My life was born anew with her, as with all new mothers, and would never be the same again. This was a time of altered consciousness for me and subsequent adjustment. For many this can trigger postnatal depression. Thankfully I did not experience depression after birth, but I did have to adjust to my new reality and adjusting is hard. It takes time, reflection and compromise. The novelty wears off, and you find yourself alone, often isolated in a brand new, largely domestic housebound routine with a helpless baby as your only company. As you tread the boards of your own little box over and over, your new reality hits home. Is this all there is? 

Here lies the first existential crisis most people will face. 1 in 10 women and men experience this change in mental state after having a baby. 1 That fact alone suggests it is not merely hormones at play. It is altering one’s reality which shocks people to the core. You have to rebuild your expectations in this new world you have made for yourself.

Seen out of context the NHS websites list of postnatal depression symptoms reads as the common reaction to living in lockdown.

• A persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
• Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
• Trouble sleeping at night and feeling sleepy during the day
• Withdrawing from contact with other people
• Problems concentrating and making decisions

Lockdown is causing a reactionary depression which is affecting a large part of the world. It is a mind-altering experience, dubbed in the UK as the biggest threat to mental health since wartime. World over people are experiencing conditions which trigger depression; isolation, fear, lack of physical contact, healthy diversion or privacy. This is no longer any one single demographic experiencing feelings of depression, ascribed to birth, death, trauma, incarceration, abuse or illness. This globally collective experience illustrates that the situational context of the individual critically influences mental wellbeing.

One of the positive outcomes of lockdown is that a great many people can now empathise with experiences such as these. ‘Some days I wonder if I’ve lost the ability to talk’, my father told me as my mind returns to mum friends exclaiming ‘I’ve forgotten how to talk like an adult’. I watched how that sense of doubt slowley diminished their confidence and social empowerment. Lockdown has shown us how much power circumstances and environment can have over mental health. While labels such as postnatal depression are associated with hormonal change it is clearly important not to undervalue the situation and environment as root causes. 
Doubting the senses
At 29 I learned that I was dyspraxic; a learning difference which affects the sensory motor system and memory. As I learned more and more about this specific learning difference, I began to question events in my past and replay them in my mind. Did I struggle at school because of dyspraxia? Is that why I have insomnia? Why I can’t stand certain noises? I am introspective by nature and second guessing my memory is normal. Misreading a social situation is routine. I finally had a label which helped me to understand why I struggled with these things. But the struggles didn’t diminish with time because my environment stayed the same. My PhD enabled me to explore this topic. I interviewed applied artists who received a diagnosis of dyspraxia later in life. They shared the same constant sense of self-doubt.
‘it’s like you live in a world where you don’t trust anything’
Emily Öhlund, Interview with Subject #1 for doctoral research

‘by expecting something to not be right in advance [I’m] avoiding disappointment and sometimes reducing stress’
Emily Öhlund, Interview with Subject #1 for doctoral research

Dyspraxia means that your senses do not communicate in typical ways with your brain. Misunderstandings and sensing the world differently can be the result. Contrary to most people, lockdown has provided me with a welcome break from social exchanges. While the world around me grappled with the awkwardness of virtual meetings, I felt relieved. Awkwardness and strangeness play a small roll in everything I do. Accustomed to it, I prepare for it instinctively. The rest of the world seemed to be ten steps behind, only just experiencing the same sensory confusion I am used to. For once it felt like we were on equal ground. This learning ‘disability’ ceased to be one in this new situational context.
‘this is when the superpowers of dyspraxia kicked in, it seems I knew what I would need to self-preserve and function in an unpredictable, restricted and anxiety ridden time because this is often how I experience life’
Emily Öhlund, Interview with Subject #1 for doctoral research

These interviewees felt fully capable of adapting to a lockdown life. Dr Thomas Armstrong, author of many books on the subject of Neurodiversity, proposes that learning disabilties only need be delineated and prescribed because of environmental and situational context. ‘The system is disabling’.
About time
The people I interviewed had learned how to deal with a sense of timelessness. Placing oneself in time and space is difficult for people with dyspraxia. In order to compensate they had developed physical strategies throughout their lives to strengthen this skill. In other words, they knew that they could not rely on an inner body clock, so they developed routines to segment and monitor time. These rituals kept them strong during lockdown when days began to blend together.
‘It was kind of like an inverse of normality- where I would be the chaos amongst structure, rebelling against it, not conforming and trying to change or challenge it. Whereas without those 'boarders' as such I saw the chaos outside of me and fought against this by implementing stability’
Emily Öhlund, Interview with Subject #1 for doctoral research

Insomnia is another widespread effect of lockdown which people are facing, many for the first time. Insomnia is also a common trait of dyspraxia and most dyspraxic adults have developed routines to combat it. In Homemade, the short film series filmed in lockdown, a woman is afflicted with insomnia, loosing herself between sleeping and waking; a place where reality and dream blur and nothing feels real.
© Netflix
Today. I mean, tonight. The day… after tonight. Which is tomorrow. [sighing] Which means nothing.

‘…which means nothing’. This is the crux of the disturbance and the greatest shock to the system. In this new surreal existence, structure disappeared to such a degree that day and night, weekday and weekend meant nothing anymore. The distinction between these periods fell away and they became mere words. Time itself began to bend, warp and finally, stand still altogether. It had lost all meaning. The ground felt still, the roads were still, and the air was still. Time is a social construct, and this experience allowed us to see through it.

But for the interviewees with dyspraxia their experience was different. They had always experienced life in a timeless manner and as a result had learned to be consciously self-regulating. They did not depend on the daily motions of society as their support structure. While the rest of the population were experiencing disabling conditions, these dyspraxic adults were thriving. The situational context had changed, and they were no longer disabled by it. The pandemic has forced a disabling situational shift on an enormous number of people across the world. We need to use this experience to consider how the previous status quo was disabling others before we return to a flawed model. If not for the people discriminated against by an unfair system, but for the knowledge and lessons we have learnt from the pandemic. That the lifestyle we take for granted as permanent is not unshakable and can be disrupted at any given time.


Thomas Armstrong, The Power of Neurodiversity (Da Capo Press. Cambridge: MA, USA, 2010)
Jacobs Edwards, Conscious and Unconscious (Open University Press, Berkshire, UK, 2003)
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (Penguin Group. London, UK, 2013)
Albert Camus, The Plague (Penguin Group. London, UK, 2001)
John Harris, Sensation and perception (Sage Publications Ltd. London, UK, 2014)
Jared Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget (Penguin Group. London, UK, 2011) 
John Macquarrie, Existentialism (Penguin Group. Middlesex, UK, 1973)
George Myerson, Sartre (Hodder & Stoughton Educational, London, UK, 2005)
Thomas C. Oden, Parables of Kierkegaard (Princeton University Press, USA, 1989)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (Penguin Group. London, UK, 2000)
Hanna Segal, Dream. Phantasy and Art (Routledge, Abington, UK,2004)
Pavia Sheldon, Philipp A. Rauschnabel & James M. Honeycutt, The Dark Side of Social Media (Elsevier, London, UK, 2019)

Original Research

Emily Öhlund PhD research Dyspraxia in the Workshop (Royal College of Art, London, 2021)


Homemade, Kristen Stewart (Netflix, 2020)
Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis (BBC, 2016)

Melvina Reynolds, Little boxes (Columbia Records, 1967)

Dr Thomas Armstrong: The Power of Neurodiversity: Engaging the Differently Wired Brain, 4th Annual Neruodiversity  Symposium (University of La Vere, CA, USA, 17/04/2021)


Figure 1. Emily Öhlund’s Zoom presence 
Figure 2. 394th District Court of Texas - Live Stream https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxlPGPupdd8 
Figure 3. U.S. House Committee on Financial Services https://financialservices.house.gov/live/ 
Figure 4. Homemade, Kristen Stewart https://www.netflix.com/
Emily Öhlund is completing a PhD at the RCA exploring neurodiversity and the applied arts. She has BA Hons in both Jewellery and Silversmithing and Costume for the Performing Arts. Before joining the RCA she was a partner at couture fashion jewellery company Akong London. She worked for many years at the English National Opera in the textiles department. She also worked as a freelance for Ballet Rambert, the Royal Opera House, Artem Special Effects, private clients in the music industry and was head of production for upcycling antique jewellery company FlorenceB. She has spoken about her research at national and international conferences and written articles in a number of art journals.