We 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.