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Hyperstimulation Is an Increasing Evil Whose Influence We Must Combat

November 11, 2015

blog11-11We live in an age of such overstimulation that it would be unimaginable to people even a mere hundred years ago. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say we are not simply overstimulated, we are hyperstimulated. The number and kind of diversions available to us and imposed upon us are almost too numerous to mention. Silence and quietude are as unknown to us as is real darkness. We are enveloped in such sea of light 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 incredibly high rate. It is a rule of thumb with television producers that the angle of the picture should change at least every eight seconds, and preferably more frequently. Many, if not most, of our movies present action at a dizzying pace. Chase scenes, violent outbursts, and explosions are regular fare. 24-hour news channels, not content to have simply the picture of the story being presented, also have stock tickers and headlines running across the bottom of the screen. Children love to play video games that feature graphics moving at a frantic pace, and often involving violent and jerky motions. Thus, even our recreation is often mentally draining, involving hyperstimulation of both the eyes and the ears.

Background noise permeates even our “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 absent. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on this country, I went outside and noticed a very strange silence. The constant sound of airplanes above was gone; all air-traffic had been grounded. I never realized just how much noise they produce until then.

Many people have never really known true silence. Some complain that they are incapable of sleeping without something playing in the background such as the radio, the television, or some other 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 pace is frantic. With modern communication and transportation, unreasonable expectations of our availability quickly crush in on us. We are often expected to participate in conference calls in the morning and then by afternoon be forty miles away at some other meeting or activity. With modern communication cutting across time zones, it is not uncommon for people to be up in the middle of the night attending to business matters on the other side of the world.

In these and many other ways, our lives are harried, distracted, and not just overstimulated, but hyperstimulated. It is a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

All of this leads to many unhealthy and unholy behavioral issues. I’d like to distinguish three main areas: distractions, doldrums, and debasement.

I. Distractions – One of the clearest signs that we are hyperstimulated is our short attention spans. After a steady diet of video games and other fast-paced diversions, many, if not most, children 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 that seems normal to them.

Having been trained by television and the Internet to simply change the channel or click on something else 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.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), not just among children but also adults, is the new normal. Sadly, many children are medicated for what is often merely a short attention span caused by hyperstimulation. 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 ADHD, it doesn’t take too much analysis to see that many, if not most, cases are more environmental than organic in cause.

II. Doldrums – Another result of hyperstimulation is boredom. When one is hyperstimulated, 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, enjoying a good meal, or reading a book become almost unendurable.

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 hyperstimulation 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 hyperstimulated 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. Hyperstimulation begets a kind of addiction to extremes. Ordinary dramas and adventure movies from fifty 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, and themes must be ever stranger in order to keep our attention.

The pornography explosion of the last seventy years is another sad illustration of this. Those who are caught up in the tragic descent into Internet pornography often need to look at strange and even horribly debased images of human sexuality in order to get the stimulation they seek. Never satisfied, they look voraciously for images that are ever more lewd and unnatural. Their hyperstimulated lust increasingly knows no limits.

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

G.K. 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, unusual, immodest, and just plain strange. Welcome to so-called “body art” (tattooing), body piercing, tongue-splitting, and any number of other self-destructive 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 hyperstimulated and thereby wanting to flee to the strange and unusual 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 difficult to do, but it’s good 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 more often. Perhaps we can spend a little less time on the Internet (except for this blog, of course). 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 overscheduling our children in extracurricular activities, and that it is good to let them just be home sometimes to rest and spend time with the family.

Whatever it is, you and the Lord decide. But hyperstimulation is an increasing evil of which we should be aware. We do well to discover it, name it, learn its moves, and then combat its increasing power in our lives.

Comments (26)

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  1. Lou says:

    …..had to laugh when reading this: I awoke to Total Silence (from a nap) the other week, and I was so surprised: the blimp that was loosened from Maryland had passed overhead and demolished all power in my patch of Pennsylvania. No heating unit powering on-off, everything you can imagine was ‘off’. It was Wonderful. Why it was humorous to me: there is so much ambient Noise in my small town environment that I have been using a ‘sound-machine’ at night so that I can sleep ! Who would have ever thought of such a thing 50-100 years ago ? I could write a list of 50 sounds that occur with such regularity that peaceful sleep is nearly impossible. While knitting in a hospital recently several children approached me to ask What In The World was I doing ?
    oh I won’t go on, how boring to grow older and older and enjoy thinking about the simpler past so much !

  2. Nick says:

    Nothing listed is modern, but are as ancient as man. The issue is not hyperstimulation but sin and concupiscence, the product of which is hyperstimulation. Baptism kills Original Sin, not just its fruit of concupiscence, so combat the tree of concupiscence to kill the fruit of overstimulation.

    I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: preach virtue. Most Roman Catholics – unlike Eastern Catholics – don’t even know what virtue and concupiscence. They love to hear about Mary’s virtues, but don’t know what a virtue is or how it helps one overcome concupiscence. We love to hear about the fruit of Original Sin, but most don’t know what it is or why they should overcome it.

    It’s good to preach against overstimulation, recommend temperance, extol holy silence, and proscribe better living, but to shift the blame from oneself to culture and to not tell people how to do good and avoid evil defeats the message’s purpose. You can tell people to not watch TV all day, but without the Holy Spirit, Who defeats concupiscence in us and fills us with virtue, such talk is useless.

    You made a post about Original Sin and evangelization, so why not a post about overcoming concupiscence and enabling the human and Christian virtues in Christ in His Spirit? Preach the full catechesis, as explained here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3.htm#1697

    • Winefred says:

      The writer is not shifting blame to hyperstimulation, but offering a uniquely modern path — a greased chute, really — to old fashioned sins. And the old-fashioned sins are themselves transformed by a uniquely modern multiplication of horrors. I don’t think there’s any arguing with that. Visual imagery in particular, largely through music and game videos but also in “regular” programming such as medical and crime dramas, have amped up the ugliness, violence, and perversion, not just in degree but in blinding speed and graphic realism. We need not pursue it as entertainment, but it is dangerous and irresponsible to cut ourselves off completely from contact with current events, and thus are likely to be confronted with some of this technological mayhem in the process. The challenge is to recognize it, understand what it is up to, and filter it. And to know how to absent ourselves from it when we can, to reclaim and enjoy the kind of peace and quiet that much of our world has forgotten. It is absolutely possible, but it is difficult. Msgr. Pope encourages us to recognize what is around us for the danger that it is, and to cultivate the ability to rise above it or avoid it. He is by no means shifting responsibility entirely to the manufacturers of hyperstimulation — though I think they are accessories to the sins of those whom they draw down that road.

      • Winefred says:

        Sorry — first sentence has a hole in it: “The writer is not shifting blame to hyperstimulation, but identifies it as offering…” etc.

  3. David F says:

    I would add today’s families are also over-scheduled. Between sports, clubs, school and work everyone in the modern household is burdened and busy. So meals,family time and real conversations are infrequent and family prayer minimal.

    • Maria says:

      I have to second this. My children just started KINDERGARTEN and we are already overwhelmed by their, homework, field trips, birthday parties . . . and the judgement of school officials and other parents if you try to get out of any of this. It is really depressing me. What time is left for a family to just be a family?

      Excellent post as usual, Monsignor. Thank you for the practical suggestions at the end.

  4. Mrs S. says:

    This is most excellent! Very thought provoking and full of truth! I shall ponder on this a great deal. Thank you so much Msgr. Pope!

  5. Sarah says:

    I really appreciated this reflection. By focusing on the outside world so much I focus I leave no time to focus and embrace my inner/spiritual life. Thanks for the reminder to “drop off the grid” once in a while.

  6. Therese says:

    St. Therese’s “Little Way” each day comes to mind. Thank you for reminding me.

    • Bev says:

      Thank you for reminding me what the root solution is! Gratitude in all, especially the little things.

  7. I truly enjoyed your article “Hyperstimulation Is an Increasing Evil Whose Influence We Must Combat”…What you say is so true…I am a grandmother and it’s so sad to hear my grandkids always say, “I’m bored!” However, I believe in the power of prayer and know that soon the Lord will answer our prayers…major ‘things’ will happen in the world – changes will be made- and our children and grandchildren will have no alternative but to slow down….and then the Lord will be able to speak to their hearts – conversions will take place. There is hope and I will continue praying….Praise the Lord! I will share your spirit-filled inspired article with my daughter. Blessings….

  8. Shawn says:

    Thank you, Monsignor, for such a cogent and timely piece on many things that have bothered me for some time now. I think we all need to find some quiet place and time to reflect–the soul needs this. I think this article should be shared with many. I hope it is. God bless

  9. Xavier Abraham says:

    True. Even our work culture too is becoming more and more hyper-stimulated. Recently I read an article about a big corporation where people are expected to reply to emails even in night. Work is important, and so is rest. Even while engaged at work, we should be at rest with God. The present culture is opposed to this idea, and encourages and stimulates restlessness.

  10. Richard Connell says:

    1 Kings 6:7 “All the time the temple was a-building, the stones used were ready hewn and shaped, so that there was no ringing of hammer or axe or iron tool in the house itself, while it was being built.” Even back in the time of King Solomon noise was an issue.

  11. Another thing that this hyper stimulation does is cause people to reject the natural law, so things such as contraception, cohabitation, homosexuality, and abortion are accepted. With the senses being bombarded and overloaded people can no longer see intelligible essences and their claims. These essences (natures) of things can only perceived by the mind in a relative calm.

  12. Martin says:

    Thank you for a great post, Msgr. Hyperstimulation is indeed an important issue, all the modern gadgets we have these days can have a pernicious effect.

  13. Paulo says:

    The other day we had a short black out. My 9-year-old and I were having breakfast, and he commented: “The best thing on a black out is when you hear the beeping of everything electrical coming back to life.” Sigh…

  14. Bob Regan says:

    The 4 D’s of the diabolic — Division, DISTRACTION, deceit, and discouragement. The dark one is using all 4 of them very well right now.

  15. susanna says:

    and it’s a conspiracy against the interior life.

  16. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Hyperstimulation is an increasing evil whose influence we must combat. That would have been a valid issue to bring up at the recent synod.

  17. Christopher Calore says:

    Thank You Monsignor for this inspirational piece leading to truth and sanity in this crazy culture.

  18. RachaelM says:

    We are also hyperstimulated with the change to so-called Daylight Saving Time. Everything is speeded up to occur an hour earlier. Have to be at work at 8:30 am Daylight Saving Time? You’re actually on the job at 7:30 am Standard Time. If your body gets a chance to notice the sunrise or sunset, it knows the time on the clock is off an hour. Until recently when Daylight Saving Time started the 2d week in March and ended the first week in November, we used to change the clocks every 6 months (end of April and end of October). Now we have 8.5 months of Daylight Saving Time, and only 3.5 months of Standard Time to reset our bodies. Artificiality is the ruler of the day.

  19. Mike says:

    Spot on Monsignor! I teach 8th grade Confirmation class at my parish and

    try to incorporate 5 minutes of silent prayer with a short scripture

    reading at the end of class and few of the students can sit still, not fidget or

    refrain from peeking at their fellow students. Concentrating on prayer in front of the
    Blessed Sacrament is easily my biggest challenge with these 13 year olds.

    .

  20. scragsma says:

    I’d add another caution: Reading itself can become an escape from life. It’s not as hyperstimulating as the other things noted in this article, but it can become merely an entertainment, a focus on oneself, and an excuse for avoiding interaction with other people.

  21. Mom5 says:

    SPOT ON ABOUT HYPERSTIMULATION! It is all around us. My family often discuss how no one needed tv in the past as we are convinced that the adults sat, visited and watched the antics of all the kids back in the day. We do this at family get togethers. With the grandparents having 20+ grandkids it is hilarious to see what the kids think up. Of course, we are farm people who also garden, can & freeze, bake and cook. Turning off the tv is crucial to getting all this done, as is the help of the kids. Society has replaced hard work with constant entertainment.

  22. John says:

    Noise is the world’s response to keeping people in chaos and frenzy. If people were surrounded by silence, it would actually allow them to think. This noise is all about controlling people by making their environment inhospitable for thinking and relaxing. The noise is always selling us something, convincing us we need more materialism, more products, a new car, a new partner, etc…Thinking is dangerous, especially creative thinking and not promoted nor encouraged. Being able to think and be at one with nature allows us to see God’s design for our lives. When the mind is at peace and relaxed, it can see the reality of the beauty of God and His majesty. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in silence. However, silence is uncomfortable, un-acceptable, and now promoted as “abnormal”. We are turning people into nothing less than zombies. My last visit to a doctor’s office made me so stressed out. There were at least (2) televisions blaring the news, which of course, was all bad news. This is supposed to be a place of healing and I’m hearing about all the murders of the previous night that took place. If you ask the receptionist to turn the t.v.’s down, they look at you as if you are crazy.. We need to start asking people to get rid of this noise. If more people would speak up, perhaps things will change for the better.