Pop-quiz time. Which of the following do you agree with?
- I love watching TV shows or social media before bed
- I’m unaware why junk food is addictive and consume the same at times.
- I cut back on tech and mindfully use them whenever possible
- I’m health junkie man
You’re could be overstimulated, if you agreed to the first two statements,. If it’s the latter ones, you’re aware of how our primal part of the brain is taken advantage of.
The world functions in fast-forwarded motion, content produced each day is gargantuan, and infants are waiting in pole positions for the starting buzzer so that they could dash out of their mother’s womb, and play with talking tom. Our planet is getting more stimulating each day.
What should we do in a hyper-stimulated world? What happens if we don’t do anything? Is there an end to all this? But before all this, we need to understand how our brains operate in this world of over-stimulation.
OUR BRAIN VS SENSORY ADAPTATION
How much did you enjoy your fifth day of vacation, 8th continuous hour of watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S or the 5th hour of playing PUBg? Not as high as the first right?
See, our brain is a highly malleable organ, like jello. Every act is simply a stimulus. From eating your food to playing video games, dopamine fuels everything(a rewarding chemical). Just like the body which gets adapted to working out and requires you to increase difficulty (for further stimulation), the brain adapts to continuous external stimuli.
The brain produces dopamine when you watch Netflix.(Let’s say you watch an hour during weekends). Now do that for 6 hours/day, 7 days/week – the brain adapts to the stimulation and releases dopamine at a higher level than what it usually does. Instead of getting a dopamine hit after watching an hour of friends, you get the same rush only after 7 hours. This process is called sensory adaptation – A reduction in sensitivity to a stimulus after constant exposure to it. 1
With consistent binging, the sensitivity levels keep increasing and one fine day watching Netflix for 15 hours/day isn’t as pleasurable as it should be. This is how addictions are formed. Coupled this with the point of overstimulation.
Consumption until the point of stimulation is healthy, and anything above it leads to addictions.
But why do we behave like this? Can we just hit the off button and go on with our lives?
THE OVER-STIMULATED WORLD WE LIVE IN
We live in a world of overstimulation. Let me give you some examples,
- Drugs, Alcohol and other mind-numbing stuff.
- Food porn – A glamorized presentation of cooking or eating that makes the act of looking at food more enjoyable.
- Smartphones (duh!) – A gateway for multiple pleasures like Murder porn (consumption of violent crime stories as entertainment), Disaster porn (binging on disastrous events), actual pornography, mobile games. Specific categories on YouTube, like ASMR videos and food porn pleasure you for no reason. Oh, I almost forgot – Social Media. 2
- Junk food – Saltier, sweeter or foods packed with calories than usual
- Video games – Self-explanatory.
But, when you dive deeper, there’s a primal part of our brain that’s been taken advantage of. Let’s consider junk food. Back in those hunter-gatherer days, food was scarce. Our ancestors really enjoyed it when they found a huge resource of food. This is why junk food is addictive because higher calories = better chances of survival. In the modern era, we don’t have food as our primary concern, as our ancestors did. But this primal part still rests inside our brain and causes our addiction to junk food. Let’s consider another example – Notifications on your smartphone. But before that check out this burger… umm yummy.
Ignoring notifications is hard because ignoring them equals brushing off people in your tribe who’re trying to communicate with you. Which meant higher the chances of being ostracized which led to poor chances of survival.
Our primal centres are turbocharged. Did you know that fruits used to be a pleasure back then? They were the only source of sweets. If you were a forager who finds a mango by accident, there’s a higher chance that you’re gonna consume before someone spots you. But we’ve a wide array of candies enticing us better than fruits do. This explains the craving for sweets in the modern era.
Brain on excessive stimulation
Nikolaas Tinbergen (a researcher of animal behaviour) found that songbird parents preferred to feed fake baby birds with mouths wider and redder than their real chicks. He experimented with different species and the results were the same. They all preferred the fake ones. But one species stimulates itself – It’s human beings.
“The essence of the supernormal stimulus,” the psychiatrist Deirdre Barrett wrote in her book on the subject, “is that the exaggerated imitation can cause a stronger pull than the real thing.” 3
Food is not treated as a source of sustenance, but also as a source of beauty that warrants intellectual engagement. Smartphones aren’t tools anymore but an essential part of our lives. Living without it is out of the picture.
Coupled with this, there’s a colossal amount of data generated each day. (2.5 quintillion bytes – 25 followed by 17 zeros) and about 90% of entire data is generated within the past two years.
In a nutshell, everything is designed to be pleasurable as humanly possible. We’ve become the easily distractible, overstimulated and fog-minded creatures of the world.
Now, is there an end to all this?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE REMOVE HYPER-STIMULATION FROM OUR LIVES
Modern entertainment and overstimulation is a cultural phenomenon but the consumption of it stays at the individual level. When you become mindful of your consumption (with time) your adaptation threshold levels fall back to normal. By then you start enjoying a good flick for an hour instead of dragging yourself through the eighth episode of whatever with no idea of what you’re doing.
And normal stuff like reading, watching a TV show or playing games for an hour provides great relaxation. This is the core of dopamine detoxes – to give your dopamine receptors and your brain a timeout. It’s not that junk food, social media or video games are inherently bad in themselves(except drugs and alcohol) it’s just that we shouldn’t allow them to become our default mode of life.
SAFEGUARDING YOURSELF FROM SENSORY OVERLOAD
In a frantic world, it’s impossible to avoid overstimulation. But we can engineer our environment to make the best of it. I’ll share some ideas which worked for me and maybe you could pick something up too.
Delete social media apps from your phone – I use my laptop for social media and email. This saves you more time than you could imagine.
Set limits for apps – If you don’t have a PC or find it impractical to delete social media from your phone, use App blockers. After experimenting with multiple apps App Block works for me. Other excellent apps include Lock Me Out, Block Apps. I use cold turkey for my PC. These apps allow you to lock yourself out of your phone based on schedules or when you cross a certain limit. Extremely helpful in bringing down your screen time.
Make your phone boring by grayscaling it – I grayscale my phone all the time. (Note: I use this trick no more as there’s nothing enticing enough on my phone to distract me) This is how my phone looks with and without grayscaling
This makes my device more of a boring thing forcing me to do something else. You can achieve this with an app called Grayscale.
Though setting up this app can be a little tricky for non-techy users, it makes your phone boring within like 5 seconds. And set-up schedules in such a way that you’re allowed to access distracting apps after 12pm – so that you can get your work done at the start of the day.
You may ask “why not have a little self-control?”. It’s easier to set these blockers up and call it a day rather than using our willpower to exercise self-control.
Unfollow people and pages on social media who you don’t get real value from – This includes meaningless yet enticing IG posts filled with food. (Food porn remember?)
Actively look for longer forms of content – Content that’s above 1000 words and videos longer than 6 minutes. This weeds out low-quality content like insignificant news and short meaningless videos. Check out the resources section where I’ve added several sources of long-form content. The primary reason for this is that longer content delves deeper into an issue where short content doesn’t.
Delete or disable apps that you don’t use – I try my best not to clutter my phone with unused apps. My suggestion would be to kick them off your phone. Incorporate interests out of Technology and Pizzas – Reading, Cooking, Painting, Writing, Gardening, Learning a new language, Working Out, Sports, Board Games, Programming, Learning new skills are a few.
Disable all notifications – I turn off all notifications except alarms, phone calls and messages.
Why this hassle?
As we grow up in life we gain independence, the ability to make our own decisions, the freedom to control what we do with our lives. But we aren’t sitting on unicorns flying through Happyland all the time. When life hits us we turn to tech to relax. But in this modern age, relaxation has become more tempting and less meaningful. Just like monitoring kids, we need people/ things to monitor us. The human brain isn’t cool all the time. It gets messy.
Hold yourself accountable, try actively to engage in non-stimulating activities like reading or cooking, limit your stimulation. Other than the fact that you’re less stimulated, your life becomes calmer and enjoyable amidst a war of distractions.
- Longform content – James clear, Lifehacker, Mark Manson, Psychology today, Pursuit of wonder, Better ideas, Matt d’Avella, Thomas Frank
- Stuart McMillian comics
- How sensory adaptation works – Very well mind
- What food porn does to your brain – The Atlantic
- Mark Manson – In the future, our attention will be sold – This is why everything is becoming a version of softcore porn: music videos, commercials, movies and reality TV shows. And when it’s not softcore porn, it’s some other kind of porn: food porn, murder porn, disaster porn, or actual, like real-life porn. Porn gets attention. And today, attention is what sells.