The Sensory Driven Life: The Culture of Emotions
In Beyond Smarter, Dr. Reuven Feuerstein, reports that a modern person is exposed to more stimuli in a 24-hour period than a medieval man was exposed to in his entire life. What is “stimuli” and why are they producing such a profound effect on people today? ; People of all ages, not just children. Webster’s dictionary defines stimulus as: “any agent that influences activity in an organism.” The word “Stimuli” is the plural of stimulus.
How do we detect “stimuli” anyway? Here’s a quick list of our sensory systems: visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, proprioceptive and vestibular. These sensory systems take in and begin the complex, yet often automatic, interpretation of the countless stimuli that we receive throughout the day.
Experimental evidence suggests that the amygdala of the brain via its connections with other areas of the midbrain, brainstem and cortical regions, involving both autonomic nervous systems and memory centers, shapes the interpretation of these stimuli. The amygdala apparently contains the necessary neural mechanisms to provide both psychological and physiological responses to stimuli.
This combination of psychic and physiological responses to a stimulus is called “emotion.”
These responses to stimuli are made possible via neurotransmitters which include: serotonin, GABA (these two are calming) and: glutamic acid, dopamine, histamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, (these are excitatory). There is a great deal more to this, but for this discussion we’ll keep it simple.
So to recap, when we are exposed to stimuli our brain literally produces chemicals that can have a hugely calming effect on our emotions and physical body, or a profoundly stimulating, excitatory result, both emotionally and physically. (In a future post we’ll specifically address our body’s chemical responses when the amygdala interprets stimuli as a fear trigger.)
This is why the huge amount of sensory input we are allowing ourselves and our children to bask in, is literally changing our brain and body chemistry. The movies we view, the volume and rhythm of music we expose ourselves to, the emotional content of these media and the host of other senses we evoke- all integrate in a multiplied fashion and evoke a flood of sensational responses in our body and mind.
The concern is that with prolonged exposure to any stimuli, the mind and body of a neurotypical individual will adapt. They will habituate. Habituation to a proprioceptive stimuli, occurs in less than fifteen minutes. For the visual sense this takes only a few milliseconds. (The eyes actually make slight movements all the time. That’s why you can get an after image when staring at a pattern for a few minutes.)
The sensory systems are designed to detect change. Change in visual patterns, change in volume, change in rhythm, change in taste, change in smell, change in movement and position. If there is no “change” the body habituates and requires a yet a greater magnitude of sensory stimuli to evoke a meaningful response.
The visual sense literally affects nearly every area of the brain. Hearing damage is now in greater proportions in younger people than in the elderly. With our increasing utilization of technology, especially those involving visual and auditory components we are not only chemically driving the emotions of the audiences but we are also habituating the culture to require more intense stimulation to achieve a desired registry and an effect. Remember chemical dependence comes not only via an oral drug, but just as effective via the neurotransmitters that the body is able to manufacture itself.
We are in essence, creating a Sensory Seeking Culture feasting on overstimulation, exhibiting an unquenchable appetite for yet greater magnitudes of sensational stimuli; A culture that is often seeking those very stimuli that will tend to overwhelm, because for the moment it feels so good, sensory and emotion- wise.
Perhaps this is why we are cataloging ever-increasing numbers of children as: Autism Spectrum Disorders (Attention Deficit Disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders and Sensory Processing Disorders). Granted this is not the entire cause of these increased numbers, but without a doubt it is highly contributory.
The increased sensory driven culture tends to precipitate a diagnosis from those individuals who, because of other physiologic and genetic predispositions, would likely have not required a formal diagnosis had the environmental stimuli been more like that of a few decades previous. These individuals have been likened to the “canary in the coal mine”. Special ones that are to us an indicating agent that our culture needs to reassess the level of stimulation in our environments.
[ Beyond Smarter by Dr. Reuven Feuerstein; Concise Text of Neuroscience by Dr. Robert E. Kingsley; Sensational Kids by Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D. OTR; Overcoming ADHD by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D. ]