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.