I was trying to explain to someone what it meant when I said that I spend so much time “beneath” words, and have to climb up to them from below. And it hit me that I could depict all of the different layers I go through one on top of the other. I once depicted them (but not all of them, and not showing them as layers) before, so I already knew some of how to do this. I used cut out pieces of construction paper to do the top six layers, and paint for the bottom two.
I’m numbering the eight layers from bottom to top, but describing them from top to bottom. So I am going to start with the eighth layer. Also these are the layers for written language specifically. Some of them do correspond to spoken words.
The eighth (top) layer shows the words, “Don’t you know another”. It could be any words, but after not having a clue which to use, I chose the start of a sentence that a guy in an emergency room told me when I was a teen, after I was picked up very overloaded in public and humming one tune over and over to calm down. (He was in that mode people get in when you’ve become unable to talk so they suddenly decide you’ve become unaware of your surroundings too, and they mutter at you in a specific tone that seems to assume you will never tell anyone what they said.) These words represent what happens when you understand the words perfectly well.
The seventh layer reads “melly doxel rin tunsh”. It represents being able to recognize the sounds a word might make, but not being able to understand their meaning. Whether or not you know that words can have meanings (I didn’t know that when I learned to read, and had skipped over some layers entirely that only became meaningfully separate later).
The sixth layer reads “ncj fv rztlh xlm hnnc”. This layer involves recognizing the letters as letters, but not deriving sounds from them.
The fifth layer shows a series of symbols such as circles, squares, zig zag lines, and other shapes. They are arranged as if they form words with spaces between them. This represents recognizing the letters as symbols, but not as recognizable letters.
The fourth layer shows a series of small slightly wavy lines, arranged in a pattern. This involves recognizing the letters as separate things, but not recognizing them as symbols.
The third layer shows a bunch of joined together lines. This represents seeing and noticing a black pattern on the background, but not really separating out the pieces.
The second layer is painted. It shows a variety of shapes, some recognizable and some not, some vague and others clearer, all blending into each other and the background. The photo has different colors than the real object due to the flash, for instance something medium green came out almost light pink. There is some loss of the actual multilayered texturing that’s in the real one too. This layer represents just sort of seeing a lot of shapes and colors and visual textures, and the patterns those things make, and not even noticing the text at all. Although it’s by nature visual, this is usually happening in all the senses at that point.
The first layer is gradually and unevenly shaded into by the second layer. It shows a textured black background with a white circle in it. This is when not even sensory impressions make much of a dent in conscious awareness. The white circle is meant to show that even though this may seem completely blank in some ways, it’s not as empty as it may seem. (When things seem totally empty I feel “disappeared”. I did not attempt to draw this, but it would be zero.)
The things I drew were usually somewhat arbitrary. It would be possible to include more or fewer layers, or things “off to the side” that don’t fit into a simple sequence. I drew this to communicate a basic idea, not to do a perfect representation of everything. There are doubtless layers above eight too — but I drew this to show what is beneath what most people think is the most basic, not to show all the different levels that fluent reading can take.
Anyway, in different people who experience all these layers, things may work differently. For instance someone might live in the sixth layer, climb to the seventh layer easily, climb to the eighth layer with more difficulty, fall back to the fourth layer during ordinary shutdown, and the second during more severe shutdown. Such a person will have a very different experience of each of these layers than I do (for instance viewing the second layer as total confusion instead of comforting, familiar, and easily navigated). And a second person may live in the sixth layer also but never make it to the eighth and have great difficulty with the seventh. And someone else may live in the fourth, and climb to the seventh easily by skipping the fifth and sixth altogether.
I generally live in the second and first layers. This is where I am comfortable and have the widest experience navigating. I have a lot of experience built up there and it isn’t disorienting. There are things that can disorient me during shutdown but they aren’t part of the scope of something about reading and are hard to depict. And then there’s layer zero during shutdowns.
Climbing up to layer three and four can be done with some effort. It’s not always possible but it’s easier than the things above it.
Layer five has a barrier that takes much willpower and effort to push through. Layer five is when things become pretty painful. It’s like each time I look at a symbol and recognize it for one, it burns my brain and squeezes on other aspects of thought until they run off and hide.
There is a similar thing that can happen to me when at a similar layer in perceiving my surroundings in general. For instance, I might pick out anything circular in my surroundings and each circle I see hurts my brain the same way. And in listening to my environment, I will generally pick out a really annoying and short musical rhythm or tune from the sounds around me, and hear it boring its way into my ears over and over.
Past that barrier, things might be hard but nowhere near as hard as going through that barrier is. Sometimes I go to the sixth level and sometimes I skip it and go straight to the seventh.
Between the seventh and eighth there is another barrier. Not as big as the barrier between fifth and anything below it, but still recognizably difficult. My guess is that’s because putting actual meaning into the words is very different from, say, matching a set of sounds to a set of visual squiggles, which is just pairing one sense with another without having to match it to concepts.
(The concepts themselves are usually not one word at a time. It’s more like, what set of words goes the most often with what set of experiences, and then which patterns of word orders and such go with which others. And then skip the words you don’t understand (more than you might expect) and take what’s left and hope it makes sense.)
Anyway, obviously most of these layers involve climbing, and some parts of the climb are steeper or more difficult than others. But often I will find that it’s impossible to climb any higher than a certain point no matter how hard I try. Other times it’s impossible to climb because I entirely forget that the higher layers exist. Frequent cutoff points for both of those are between two and three (the point where the text is noticed), four and five (the point where symbols are recognized), and seven and eight (the point where meaning of words is introduced).
Additionally, most of the time I let go I fall down to at least the second layer if not the first. Sometimes I fall down to the third or fourth instead. But there are two really terrible things that can happen instead. I can get “stuck” in one of the really painful areas.
Getting stuck in the fifth layer happens sometimes. It’s as if the symbol-recognizing thing in my brain has so much momentum that it takes time for it to stop and drop down to something easier to take. Everywhere I look there are symbols. And every symbol noticed is pain. There is no way to stop this except to ride it out.
But even worse is getting stuck at the eighth layer. This happens if I read or write too much without falling back to the lower layers to rest. I described this layer as the one where meaning is added. But I meant this only in the sense of matching a set of words to a meaning. I didn’t mean meaning as in meaningful. Quite the opposite.
When stuck at the eighth layer, there is no escaping the words whether I look at words or not. The words have gotten inside my head. The meaningfulness that I derive from the second layer is nowhere to be found. Direct experience is nowhere to be found. The only thing to be found is words, words, and words.
Things go orange or yellow (the two most painful colors) and flickery, accompanied by an equally flickery ringing in my ears, and a dry burning all over my body. And inside my head all I see or hear are words. Flickery words. Buzzing words. Words. Words. Words. Words. Words. Repeating like that in an endless loop. And the terrifying emptiness that to me seems like the essence of what words and all other abstractions are (yes I am a writer with a loathing for words).
The longer I try to do something like read to take my mind off the flickering, the worse it gets and the longer it takes to go away. Time seems infinite at times like this. The only thing to do is suck it up, lie down in a dark quiet room, and tough it out until it either disintegrates or I fall asleep. If I’m awake, I gradually experience more and more periods of dark quiet, until finally the humming flickering wordiness dissipates. Usually at that point I’m exhausted and possibly have been frozen in one position for hours.
I can think of very few experiences I like less than becoming stuck in the eighth layer. I would far rather deal with shutdowns where nothing I can’t feel/see/etc. exists and I keep hitting layer zero and vanishing from my own awareness.
Another important thing is that people operating at the same layer are not necessarily experiencing the same thing. My ability to read means I can operate at the eighth layer despite living at the first and second most of the time. Another person might live at the eighth. Another person might live up at some sort of eleventh layer I haven’t got into, and be experiencing the eighth due to shutdown. The person who lives there will be the only comfortable one. I will be uncomfortable because I am greatly stretching my abilities and hanging by my fingernails. The person from the eleventh layer will likely be distressed and disoriented because their usual abilities are gone and they don’t have the long experience functioning in that layer that someone who lives there does.
This is one reason I find it really offensive when people assume that every person who can read and write (at least some of the time) has identical experiences. That assumes that everyone who can sometimes get to the eighth layer lives there, doesn’t understand the other layers that come before it, and can always get there. It’s not that simple. It’s not even as simple as the picture makes it look (and this picture is only about reading!). Life is quite a lot more complicated than that.
So that’s my simplified guide to what I mean when I talk about living “under” or “beneath” words. Similar but not identical things apply when I talk about what’s “beneath” certain kinds of thought, perception, movement, etc. Oh and generally writing something this long puts my reading at layer seven at best, which is one of several reasons I can’t easily proofread, summarize, remember what I wrote, or do various other things.