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Hyper-stimulation is an increasing evil about which we should be aware, learn its moves, and then rebuke its influence.

March 26, 2014

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“IPad 2 launch queue Raleigh North Carolina” by Mike P. – Flickr: [1]. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We live in an age of such overstimulation that it would be unimaginable to people even a hundred years ago, let alone to those of more ancient times. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say we are not simply overstimulated, we are hyper-stimulated. The number and kind of diversions available to us and imposed upon us are almost too numerous to mention. Silence and quietude are almost as unknown to us as is real darkness. We are enveloped in a sea of light such that we are no longer able to behold the stars at night.

And the artificial lights of our time do not simply illumine, they move and flicker as well. Television and computer screens flicker at an enormous rate. It is a rule with television producers that the angle of the picture should change at least every eight seconds, and preferably more often. Many, if not most, of our movies present action at a dizzying pace. Chase scenes, violent and energetic outbursts, and explosions are regular fare. 24-hour news channels, not content to have simply the picture of the story being presented, also have running commentaries and stock tickers moving rapidly across the bottom of the screen. Children love to play video games that feature moving graphics and frantic paces, often involving violent and jerky motions. Thus, even our recreation is often mentally draining, involving hyper-stimulation not only of the eyes, but also of the ears.

Background noises also permeate even what we call the quiet moments. Sometimes here in the big city, in the wake of a heavy snowstorm an eerie silence descends; the usual din of traffic is peculiarly missing. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on this country, I went outside and noticed a very strange silence. The sound of airplanes above us was gone; all air-traffic was grounded. I never realized just how much noise that produced until, for a moment, it was strangely absent.

Many people have never really known true silence. Some complain that they are incapable of sleeping without something on in the background such as the radio, or some noise-producing device. Throughout our day, cell phones ring, and blink away; emails, text messages, tweets and all sorts of other fun, interruptive stimuli bombard us.

Our overall paces are frantic as well. With modern communication and transportation, unreasonable expectations of our availability quickly crush in on us. We are often expected to be on conference calls, using various “GoToMeeting” formats in the morning, and then by afternoon be 40 miles away at some other meeting or activity. With modern communication cutting across time zones, it is not uncommon that people are expected to be up in the middle of the night attending to business matters with people on the other side of the world.

Thus, in these and many other ways, our lives are harried, distracted, and not just overstimulated, but hyper-stimulated. It is a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

All of this leads to many unhealthy and unholy behavioral issues. While many, for our purposes here, we can distinguish three main areas: distractions, doldrums, and debasement.

I. Distractions – One of the clearest signs that we are hyper-stimulated is our short attention spans. Many, if not most children, after a steady diet of video games and other fast-paced diversions, find it very difficult to sit in a classroom and endure a more normal human pace. They fidget, their minds wander, and they seek in many ways to create the stimulation and chaos that seem “normal” to them.

Having been trained by television and the Internet to simply change the channel or click away when their interest diminishes, kids just tune out when they feel bored by what the teacher is saying, something that happens very quickly for many of them.

So-called “ADHD,” not just among children, but also among adults, is the new normal. Sadly, many children are medicated for what is often merely a short attention span due to hyper-stimulation. But since the idea of unplugging and drawing back from excessive stimulation seems unrealistic or even unreasonable, many children are simply put on medication. While there may in fact be authentic cases of “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” it doesn’t take too much analysis to see that many, if not most cases, are more environmental in cause than organic.

II. Doldrums – Another result of hyper-stimulation is boredom. When one is hyper-stimulated, ordinary human activities and a normal human pace seem dull and uninteresting. Simple things like engaging in conversation, taking a walk, going to an art gallery, listening to a talk or sermon, enjoying a good meal, or reading a book become almost unendurable to those who are hyper-stimulated.

This leads to a great poverty of soul, since many of the finer things of life must be savored rather than devoured. They require dedication and patience and cannot simply be reduced to quick sound bites.

To overcome boredom, many engage in quick and crass diversions which, even if not evil in themselves, are often shallow, unenriching, and do not feed our higher nature. Such activities also tend to reinforce the hyper-stimulation that fuels them.

Boredom, or even the fear of boredom, has deprived many people of the things that were once considered the best things in life: family, fellowship, art, literature, and deeper personal relationships, not to mention prayer, and communion with God. To the hyper-stimulated only one word comes to mind when these things are mentioned: BORING!

III. Debasement – Another major and modern issue is that our entertainment and pursuits of pleasure become increasingly extreme and often debased. Hyper-stimulation begets a kind of addiction to extremes. Ordinary dramas and adventure movies from 50 years ago seem awfully slow-paced to people today. With new cinematic techniques and special effects, the demand for shocking realism becomes ever more extreme. Violence becomes more raw, themes must become ever stranger and more exotic to get our attention and keep us focused.

The pornography explosion of the last 70 years is another sad illustration of this. Those who end up on the tragic descent that Internet pornography brings, often need to look at stranger, more exotic, and even horribly debased images of human sexuality to get the “stimulation” they seek. The eye, never satisfied with seeing, looks voraciously for images that are ever more lewd and unnatural, and even criminal. Their hyper-stimulated lust increasingly knows no limits.

On a wider cultural level, other strange and exotic behaviors become daily fair. Behaviors once considered crude and shameful are now paraded about and celebrated by those who crave evermore-debased levels of stimulation. Any normal person from merely 50 years ago would scarcely believe how ugly, crude, lewd, and debased our culture has become.

GK Chesterton well described the modern trend in his book the everlasting Man:

The effect of this staleness (boredom) is the same everywhere; it is seen in all the drug taking and drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense….They try to stab their nerves to life… They are walking in their sleep and trying to wake themselves up with nightmares. (The Everlasting Man, p. 291)

Yes, welcome to the increasingly horrifying world of the extreme, exotic, immodest, and just plain strange. Welcome to so-called body art (tattooing), body piercing, tongue-splitting, and any number of other self-destructive behaviors and body alterations, along with crude and destructive behaviors. The carnival sideshow seems to have gone mainstream.

So much of it just comes back to being hyper-stimulated and thereby wanting to flee to the strange and exotic as a way to stay entertained and, frankly, awake. What is merely interesting is no longer enough; it must be shocking, edgy, extreme, and usually just plain awful in order to attract attention.

It may be hard, but it’s good advice to try to slow down a bit to the pace of normal human life, the way God intended it. We can start by turning off the television and the radio just a bit; perhaps little less Internet (except for this blog). Maybe we can rediscover some old pleasures like walking, talking, and dining (an image for the kingdom of God from the Road to Emmaus). Perhaps we might actually consider sitting down with people and having a real conversation; maybe gathering the family together for meals. Perhaps it involves learning to say “no” a little more. Maybe it involves recognizing that there are diminishing returns that come from over scheduling our children in extracurricular activities, and that it is good to let them just be home sometimes to rest and get to know the family.

Whatever it is, you and the Lord decide; but hyper-stimulation is an increasing evil about which we should be aware. We do well to discover it, to name it, to learn its moves, and then to rebuke its increasing power in our lives.

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  1. Pastoral Sharings: " Fifth Sunday of Lent" | St. John | April 5, 2014
  1. Maggie Goff says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. And of course I would NEVER stop reading your blog. 🙂

    I’m very blessed to see the moon and stars every night except if it is rainy or cloudy. I sometimes stand outside in my yard at night with tears of gratitude for God’s absolute beauty. I sometimes miss the convenience of a city, but I wouldn’t trade the peace and beauty here for anything anymore. I haven’t had television for about 11 or 12 years now, for the very reason that you mentioned of constant tickers running on the news shows on the top and bottom of the screens, and at least two talking heads. A very, very good and interesting book about the history of sleep is this: http://goo.gl/9iR1vX

  2. Francis says:

    Dear Padre,
    I guess the word for this is: Yikes! What a blessing it would be to have more priests speak of these things. The excesses and distractions that keep man away from GOD and close to nothing, can you please elaborate on what you mean by “crass diversions.”
    -Francis

  3. Peter Wolczuk says:

    What a wonderful seeming boon you have described for escaping reality. Distraction that eventually runs out, somewhat as the effect of a mood altering drug passes. Doldrums, like the crash as the excitement of the distracting drug runs out or its numbing effect dies away and unpleasantness within clamours for healing again. An unpleasantness which has grown because the price of seeking distractions has increased it. Debasement as we seek something stronger because we’ve adapted to the effect and thindk that we need a greater distraction.
    From your description it seems like society has not changed so much as turned into a non social (as opposed to anti social) group of addicts who race to be the first over the cliff like so many lemmings.
    As a matter of fact, I don’t recall hearing much about lemmings much any more. Could it be that this metaphor of the negative effects of “self will run riot” is being bypassed, in hopes of being forgotten?
    We seem to long for the infinite which never run out and encourages, by example, a positive spiritual growth but dodge a holy fear of God and turn to things which keep letting us down but which we don’t fear, but probably should.
    You seem to be developing more and more into one of those annoying people who tell us what we need to hear instead of what you want to hear. Don’t recall anyone accusing me of that and I’ll try not to be jealous of you for that.
    May God bless you in a positive, non guilt tripping, way of that – as His will be done.

  4. Therese T. says:

    I am not a professional teacher, but I have noticed that the ability to sit still or pay attention is rapidly dwindling amongst the children in the CCD classes in our parish. The only way I can describe it is that they look like the little steel balls in a pinball machine! I know that some people will probably say that we need to update our curriculum and provide more visual and interactive activities. Perhaps. But explain this to me – we have had children in our classes who were being homeschooled in a very traditional, classically based education program who have had no problem paying attention or controlling their impulses. Also, I have been a substitute teacher for a Catholic homeschooling co-op and have taught entire classes of children ages 6 through 17 who exhibit levels of self-control that I don’t see in adults right now. And they didn’t look like little robots either. They were engaged and engaging! They were a delight to be around and to teach. If I would take an educated guess as to what the difference is, I would say that strict limitations on TV watching, video-game playing and family-based activities would be at the top of the list.

  5. Micky Wolf says:

    Discovered your blog (Divine Providence?) about six months or so ago and am blessed in reading and pondering it every day. One word for this post–awesome. In fact, what you share, along with the video, surpasses words. Found myself drawn into an incredible and beautiful silence. Keep it up! Your range of topics and unique perspective are a gift to all of us!

  6. Morrie says:

    Great stuff. I teach piano to 4 students. Two come from a household that does not watch TV. The other two do. The difference in the ability to stay on task between them is remarkable. I will spend some time teaching the stimulated two how to disengage from the distractions and focus.

  7. Plain Catholic says:

    Yes and a resounding AMEN! One of the blessings of our life is the careful control of technology. We still use it but we control the tech, not vice versa. We limit our time on computers; we have no vid games. If a family has telly then it is only to receive weather warnings or watch Catholic cinema on dvd. Our own family prefers radio and don’t have telly at all.

    Our life is full of real conversation with each other face to face. The computer is used primarily to communicate with family on the other side of the world and to stay abreast of Church teaching and ag praxis; and of course, your column, Msgr. Pope. We derive a great bit of instruction from your weeklies.

  8. Diane at Te Deum Laudamus says:

    Good post. I see it in myself as it is so tempting to constantly be on the web. I find myself not wanting to read wholesome material. Hyper-stimulation sucks the life out of wanting to quietly ponder something after reading, as well. I find when I finally do shut everything off and read, it doesn’t take long for it to become more attractive than hyperactively going through texts and web stuff. I keep trying to set aside reading time and had intended to do so during Lent, but it’s so easy to want to check Facebook for a minute only to find an hour or more has gone by. Still learning.

  9. Laura R. says:

    Thank you, Monsignor, for this post! You point out so many dangers to spiritual (and indeed, just healthy human) life that many of us might not be aware of. Technology can be a great boon (e.g. your blog and other great Catholic resources online) but it must be used with care and discipline.

    This is a particularly good season for being reminded of such things. I have given up evening TV watching for Lent, and that has freed up a lot of time I thought I didn’t have for spiritual reading and prayer.

  10. I Like The Church Fathers says:

    “Behaviors once considered crude and shameful are now paraded about and celebrated by those who crave evermore-debased levels of stimulation. Any normal person from merely 50 years ago would scarcely believe how ugly, crude, lewd, and debased our culture has become.”

    Excellent point. As the Western world has lost its Christian faith, we see that pagan activities and entertainments have become more widespread. One example of this is the rise in popularity of professional “wrestling” and “mixed martial arts”. They are the modern equivalent of the bloody pagan gladiatorial spectacles of ancient times.

    Another example is [as you alluded to] the rise in popularity of tattoos, often involving use of pagan motifs. It’s disturbing that so many young men, and even a lot of young women, are getting tattoos these days. I read a report recently which said that elderly hospital patients are often alarmed when they are treated by nurses with lots of tattoos. Frankly, who can blame them?

  11. C Beltz says:

    I have 3 children. Two are ADHD, and one is not. Since all three were raised in the same environment, I can attest to the absolute difference between the two with ADHD and the one without. Perhaps it is more a natural tentancy toward hyperstimulation that plagues them, I am not sure, but no other variables can account for the difference as far as I can see.

    What I can say is hyperstimulation is definitely a plague on our society in EVERY area. In the workplace, we are encoursged to “multi-task” to be considered an employee worthy of promotion (or even hire). Love for simplicity has gone out the window in favor of ever changing complexities. Our cars have more gadgets than any one needs, and can often be dangerously distracting. Our kitchens a myriad fo tools to delight and frighten off most people who need to work – resulting in an over consumption of fast food. We are afraid to cook because our tools are too nice or we can’t afford what is considered “the best:” Fast food = drive through family time.

    The fact is the devil loves this and continues to whisper it into our society. We are so busy being busy, we forgot to know why we are busy. Our “better life” dream became a nightmare that most people can’t wake up from. If we knew the joy of peace and simplicity, the freedom from anxiety, we would be in a much better place.

    Still, one must have hope in God that He will deliver us from this evil. I know I do.

  12. Martha says:

    Another God-incidence for me! You address problems I am just beginning to work out what they are. God is so good and on time.
    Thank you again!

  13. TeaPot562 says:

    Two of our daughters – the mothers of eight of our grandchildren – had rules that watching TV and video games had to be limited to one hour per day. i don’t know what exceptions they may have allowed for special occasions, or if there were 2-hour movies that their kids might watch; but the grandchildren in those families had no ADHD and have grown up to be good readers.
    I have not been good at “multi-tasking”. I can interrupt work on one task to help with another more urgent, or more important; but I’m not much good at working at several at the same time. When I try, one of them “gets lost in the cracks”. Of course, I am nearly 81, so may have slowed down some.
    Thank you for your observations, Msgr Pope.
    TeaPot562

  14. The Hermit says:

    Will there ever be enough silence for the Word to be heard?

  15. Leon Walsh says:

    Monsignor, you and the commentators here are definitely NOT tuned in to the devils radio !

  16. annaincalifornia says:

    Thank you, Monsignor Pope. I love this post!

    How can we cooperate with God’s grace to grow in virtue? Can you provide
    a lesson on this topic? And also give examples, as you normally do, to help
    us comprehend and learn.

    Your daughter in Christ, anna

  17. R in Indiana says:

    Sorry I am late for this. I checked out a book on modern art, specifically recycled art for my children in relation to an upcoming trip. All of the children were fascinated by that book including my 6 year old, who couldn’t read much of what it said. There were many interesting pieces, including giant monkey made out of flipflops, and giant piano like structures on a beach that could be climbed on. While I am not usually a fan of modern art, it made me realize that art touches our soul, and my children have been missing some of that. We spend a lot of time outside, but I need to remember to expose them to human made beauty as well. Part of slowing down–instead of rushing about to see so many attractions, we can spend time with the beautiful ones.

  18. Pedro says:

    Excellent post, Monsignor Pope.

  19. Craig says:

    Yes. Frightening if you think of it and connect the small details. We do not “watch tv”, but movies and occassional prerecorded craft/This Old House/Pandora (music) shows via internet tele program, ie, Roku box.

  20. Thomas Vogler says:

    I just want to note that all this “stimulation” under discussion is generated by people for the sake of making money. The ever expanding world of commerce is competing for our attention and our dollars. The debasements and perversions of pornography, in so far as the are gross distortions of something good, and proper to our kind, are also to be found in the local supermarket, where our proper need for nourishment is hideously distorted. Kraft (for example) is to nutrition as Larry Flint is to loving intimacy.

    As living beings we have needs. Between those needs and their fulfillment we have choice. Hyper-stimulation can be seen as the field of competition for our choice. To a great extent, this has to do with advertising. The gesture of inspiring insecurity and desire, playing to insecurities that generally plague human beings, and then offering solutions for those insecurities. It’s an odd double gesture, where we are simultaneously presumed to be deficient, and are pandered to as gods of discernment and choice.

    I speculate that this really got going with advertising to children on television, back in the late fifties, early sixties. A deep, deep, indoctrination of the young and vulnerable into the burgeoning materialism and commercialism our culture. The brevity of adds is well suited to the natural attention span of children, and programs themselves came to be formatted in a similar way, fragmented bits, strung together. Sesame Street won a huge audience, by embracing that structure, by pandering to the limited attention spans of children. I have heard long-time elementary school teachers discuss the change between pre-Sesame Street kids, and those that came after.

    Sorry, I could go on for a long time about this, and I’m afraid I am not expressing myself clearly. In a nutshell, I suppose I’m suggesting that hyper-stimulation is, significantly, an effect of capitalism as we know and practice it.

    • Nate says:

      Thank you for this post. You are exactly right. Everything in life has been commodified, packaged, and sold. A healthy free market that once produced a blessed abundance has devolved into a degraded consumerism. The very worst thing about Christians in the eyes of modern society is we don’t consume enough, so we are hated by all sides, each of which has a particular thing they want the world to consume more of.

      • Don says:

        Hello, Nate:

        God’s blessings to you!

        One point about your post: While it’s probably true that most reader’s of this blog aren’t slaves to what you properly call a “degraded consumerism,” I’m afraid a significant percentage of U.S. Catholics and Protestants are–and that’s part of the spiritual crisis facing this country. Material blessings, especially when abused, hinder our relationship with God.

        The best book I read in 2013 was ALL IS GRACE, Jim Forest’s beautifully illustrated biography of Dorothy Day. She took Gospel poverty to heart. We all aren’t called to live like she did, in community, in actual poverty, but we all can learn from her example. Also, she was 100% orthodox and loyal to the Church.

        Sincerely,

        Don

  21. Mike says:

    When I fail to take time to breathe quietly and listen to the “still, small voice,” I pay for it in spiritual implosion. Thank you for the reminder of the need to disconnect.

  22. Laura T. says:

    Wise words. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  23. berdean yolles says:

    I love the spring. For one, I can sit out doors,late evening and early night. I can monder what the Lord has given us in the stars and univers. I can feel a rain shower coming. Watch the birds and wonder about the wind we can’t see. I never really thought about what you’ve said , and got to admit haven’t read it all, yet, but I am and it does make sense

  24. Sue Korlan says:

    I’m hyper and what worked for me was simply walking in prayer for a week and a half on pilgrimage when I finally had enough energy worked off to be able to do real work. Sometimes the best remedy is simply to use up the energy, and then you don’t need to do all those other things to try to get calm and you actually become calm.

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