Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sensory Overload

Information Overload
The average person is overstimulated on a daily basis and this has effected the way their entire body, particularly the nervous system, works. Interestingly the overstimulation is multifaceted. It includes everything from too much information to too much sugar and constant stress often coped with by the constant intake of mood altering chemicals.

Too Much Information
The average person in developed lands is subjected to more information in a few days than Charles Ingalls would have been in his entire lifetime. You can't even take all of that in, let alone process it. You are left with no choice but to sift and slice taking in bits and pieces with very little time and attention to give any one thing. This tends to create a reactive demeanor where we just automatically react to stimuli rather than think and respond. This effect works well for advertisers who gain when we reflexively buy things we really don't need.

Actually a great deal of the overstimulation is due to the excessive advertising in our culture. Imagine your average day. You wake up and maybe watch the morning news and see commercials, you drive to work and hear commercials on the radio, you see billboards with ads, you may even see cars that have been painted to be mobile billboards. When you get to work you have to sift through spam in your inbox. There's often fliers in the break room, an employee who's selling candy bars for their kids school or perhaps an Avon rep. When you get home more TV commercials, email spam, the occasional telemarketer and junk mail. Most of the advertising is for things that we have little or no need for. If we were to give our full attention to these messages we would have time for little else. In order to survive we learn to tune much of it out.

In addition to advertising we can also get information overload from things of relative importance. At work I have constantly incoming emails, frequent text messages and phone calls as well as IM. Most of it demanding to be answered immediately. Some have social media messages to respond to and RSS feeds to read as well. There's news 'round the clock on cable channels like CNN and MSNBC. News papers, magazines and  an endless parade of books and web sites. A couple hundred years ago most people owned a few books and they often read them over and over again. Today I have so much to read that I find it hard to even finish reading something once.

Due to these conflicting demands on our time and attention, the myth of multitasking arose. I call it a myth because inherent in multitasking is the erroneous belief that you can truly do multiple things at once. Actually multitasking is less efficient than just doing one thing at a time because you are continually starting and stopping. You also usually end up doing the task more poorly because of the lack of concentration. In the end it just gives you the impression you're more productive. If you still doubt this is a myth read here.

Shock and Awe
Today people are subjected to shocking things regularly. News reports of horrors both foreign and domestic bombard us daily. Movies and TV are filled with violent scenes and explosions. Music videos and video games grow increasingly more disturbing. Celebrities like wise invent more and more outlandish ways of garnering attention. In order to cope the brain and body become desensitized. We find what used to shock us now doesn't even raise an eyebrow.

The brain reacts to stimulation by releasing neurotransmitters. The more the stimulation the more neurotransmitters are released. If one becomes overstimulated the brain learns to adjust. In order to regain balance it learns to either increase the uptake of the neurotransmitter or release less upon stimulation. This is why it requires more to feel just as stimulated. This is the same kind of mechanism that takes place when people take drugs whether its coffee or cocaine. The more you use the more your body adjusts and thus the more it takes to feel the sensation.

Overstimulated palate
Five hundred years ago the spice trade was a very lucrative business. Spices were so valuable because they were such a novelty and required shipping over long distances from where they were produced. They were one of the few really stimulating things in life. Today spices both natural and artificial are everywhere. Piquant, salty, sweet what ever your taste is, its available and usually relatively inexpensively. But what happens when the palate is continually subjected to overstimulation? It begins to become desensitized.

Sugar is so plentiful today that we are literally killing ourselves with it. Today just about everything is sweetened and its not just our palate that's becoming desensitized. When you take in sugar or starch, which converts to sugar, and it enters the blood stream your pancreas releases insulin. This is required to limit the amount of sugar in the blood as too much can be deadly. However, if you continue to trigger large releases of insulin, because of over consumption of sugar or starch, your cells will eventually become insulin resistant.

Continuous State of Emergency
With the deterioration of world conditions and the news media reporting it 24 hours a day in a hyped up style many people find themselves experiencing burn out from being in a continuous state of alert. The body's fight or flight response was designed for short term use to help us avoid harm. The stress hormones released that give us the heightened senses and reflexes are very hard on the body and we require down time to recuperate. In our modern world, filled with terrorism, crime and crisis, we don't often get that down time. This leaves us feeling drained, depressed and sometimes results in damage to our brains and organs. Is it any wonder then, that to survive, we often find ourselves becoming desensitized to these sources or stimulation.

Some people cope with this stress by taking medications or other mood altering substances. Hard drugs like cocaine or meth cause people to have a sense of well being by manipulating the dopamine levels or the receptivity to it. The problem here is that once again the body tries to restore balance and becomes desensitized to the effects. Even coffee, which when drunk occasionally can produce strong effects, eventually becomes necessary to just feel normal when consumed regularly.

Balance and Simplicity
In a world that seems to be in love with the extreme, what's really needed is balance and simplicity. To much of anything will exact a cost and impair our quality of life. The palate that is not overwhelmed with flavor can taste much more and the brain that has less to give attention to can think more deeply. A life free of overstimulation is simply healthier and happier and you might even remember more of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment