I spent the past few years learning how to pull the levers and rotate the knobs that use your data to extract clicks online. I started to understand how these systems work, and I started to realize I was also addicted to and hurt by these systems myself. I conducted research and made changes to my behavior over the course of two and a half years. Now that I am in control I am trying to bring out the information that will help others understand and improve their digital lives.
In this series of three posts, I am trying to help people understand how digital interaction lead to mental health issues.
This is based on my work experience in social media, my education at the University of Pennsylvania, my own field research, the Max Planck Institute, and my conversations with Mary Ann Layden (Head of Education in Cognitive Therapy) at the University of Pennsylvania.
In my last post, I talked about the relationship between social media, depression, and ADHD. In this second post, I will talk about the relationship between cognitive overstimulation, depression, and ADHD.
Aside from interaction with social media, I’ve come to realize another powerful cause of mental health consequences for most people is cognitive desensitization to stimulation from constant cognitive overstimulation. Depending on the case and person, desensitization to stimulation may be considered actually the more harmful cause of mental health issues. This cause may seem far-fetched, but it is so important to grasp in trying to better understand and address underlying causes of mental health issues.
It is important to address the causes. The observed increase in symptoms of depression and ADHD cannot be explained on a genetic basis and/or on a basis of improved diagnosis. There must be underlying environmental causes that should be identified and addressed, instead of prescribing the medication prescribed today to address the symptoms. These medications have negative side effects and are unfortunately addictive. It is extremely important to address the real underlying problems. While interaction with social media is one of them, constant cognitive overstimulation is another one.
For a while, there has been concern that interaction with electric media like TVs, even black and white TVs without audio, overstimulates the mind to a degree that could be harmful on the mind. It was unclear to the past thinkers who recognized and warned of that overstimulation what the actual consequences might be. Marshall McLuhan prophetically warned about the danger of cognitive overstimulation during the advent of the basic primitive TV. The consequence of interaction with TV, especially newer TVs today, may be slight desensitization to stimulation. During interaction with the TV, we are bombarded with novel visual information, as the thousands of dots on the electric screen are constantly shifting and changing, resulting in the film you are seeing, but also in a degree of cognitive overstimulation: interaction with unnatural novel stimulation.
The reason behind the overstimulation in response to novel information is that we have always been stimulated by novel visual information. Interaction with novel visual information is highly stimulating. We evolved that way to be able to better identify opportunities for food (moving prey) and escape dangerous physical threats (rustling in the bushes). TVs, and movies and video games for that matter, streamline constantly shifting novel visual information, which is cognitively captivating and exciting — and that provides short term value — but it has the long term consequence of bombarding the mind with a high level of stimulation and excitement for an abnormal period of time, which may result in some degree of desensitization. The interaction with streamlined novel visual information also requires mental energy to process and to store (why it is hard to study after watching TV).
Over a long period of time, particularly during youth, minds can be slightly overstimulated by interaction with this novel visual information to the extent that they have slightly impaired receptivity to stimulation. The constant overstimulation may wear down receptivity to stimulation. Especially with high definition screens now — screens offering a high density of this novel visual information — heavy exposure to TV, movies, and video games through screens may overstimulate the mind, particular when young, and I think this results in a slight reduction in sensitivity to stimulation.
Essentially, what is happening is this. We are overexposed to pleasure — artificial pleasure — and this is reducing our receptivity for pleasure in the real world.
The consequence of slightly reduced sensitivity to stimulation is that normal life comes to seem slightly less stimulating, less interesting and pleasureful. With less capacity to derive stimulation, people perceive less stimulation from normal life. This results in depression. With less sensitivity to stimulation, people also get symptoms of ADHD. They constantly search for more distractions to artificially imbue additional stimulation into life. During school or professional work, people with reduced receptivity to stimulation are not deriving sufficient stimulation to maintain engagement. They seek additional artificial stimulation through frequent distractions, which leads to lifestyles of constant multitasking: texting while working, listening to music while working, etc. This erodes productivity.
That all makes sense and may have seemed straightforward logically. What is slightly less obvious is the addictive loop from desensitization. With desensitization, the digital overstimulation becomes more attractive as an escape from an otherwise under stimulating world. This leads to more use of the digital overstimulation, driving more desensitization (or at least, not allowing the mind to retrain receptivity to stimulation by enduring solitude or low stimulation existence), in a vicious feedback loop. Of course most people will stop interacting with heavy sources of digital overstimulation like TV, movies, and video games at a certain point so that they can accomplish the baseline level of work demanded from them at work or school. But for these people who reach their limit and cut themselves off in order to maintain a little productivity, it takes a lot of energy for them to resist those temptations when not indulging in them because of the cognitive pain from being under stimulated when engaging with work without those temptations. That is why I think it is much better to just separate from lifestyles of heavy interaction with those media.
Sometimes people don’t stop in order to maintain baseline productivity, and become consumed by their interaction with TV, movies, and video games. We see this happening particularly with interaction with video games, where the visual information on the screen is literally constantly shifting as the characters are moving around. This floods the mind with visual novelty and thus stimulation to a degree that TV shows and movies cannot compete against. I don’t suggest completely eliminating interaction with TV, movies, and video games. Even considering the consequences, there are times when the emotional or social value of interacting with these media is worth the costs of overstimulation. I just advocate for restrained use as opposed to the normal heavy use.
The scenes in TV shows and movies today are switching much more rapidly now as directors are trying to capture our more limited attention spans, resulting in a negative effect on attention span — if you think of attention span as an ability to handle a low level of stimulation for a continuous period of time. Keeping an attention span is really just in complete conflict with interaction with TV, movies, and video games, which acclimates the mind to constant novel visual information — deprecating its ability to engage with a singular general set of information for a sustained period of time. It is worth mentioning that while the emotional value and social value can and does exist, again, it is worth being concerned, particular for children, as their minds are more malleable and likely more impacted by overstimulation and more susceptible to the erosion of attention from interacting with constant novel visual information. It doesn’t mean that they can’t engage with it. They should just not engage with it that frequently.
We are immersed in a highly stimulating digital environment and there is the consequence of depression, from reduced receptivity to stimulation. And ADHD: the desire for additional stimulation, from the acclimation to continuous novel visual information.
The creation of portable headphones and the EDM genre is a response to desensitization and the need for additional artificial stimulation to counter the additional newfound dullness to life. At the same time portable headphones and the EDM genre are also agents of desensitization as well, inflaming the problem. We are not meant to listen to music at the volumes that we do, and EDM songs consist of sounds technologically engineered to provide acute novel audio stimulation: tons of bangs and booms, buildups providing stimulation from anticipation and what not.
It is my belief that portable headphones allow people to fuel desensitization to stimulation by being able to constantly listen to music: to streamline the intake of additional artificial stimulation. This prohibits people from enduring low stimulation existence and retraining receptivity to stimulation. Listening to music is fine, as long as the volume is not so loud and listened to so frequently as to reduce one’s audial receptivity, i.e premature hearing loss. People should not be constantly listening to high tempo head pounding EDM music if they are concerned about their levels of audial receptivity to stimulation.
Look around a college library or gym and almost nobody is able to endure the experience of singular focus without stimulation, without music. Many are desensitized to stimulation and seek additional artificial stimulation to maintain engagement with life. They don’t have enough natural stimulation and meaning in life — from interests, families, friends, religion, local communities— so instead rely on the artificial stimulation.
People are constantly mentally overwhelmed as a result.