Overstimulation: Part 1
Today we are surrounded by an excessive load of stimulation. Whether it’s our phones beeping at us, our computers calling us to favorite all of our friends tweets, or the TV that most Americans watch for 5 hour every day, our brains weren’t built to handle this level of mental buzz flying at us all day every day.
This overload causes us to lose our ability to focus. If something doesn’t flash at you, demanding your attention with bright colors or sexy women, then you won’t give it a second glance. Americans used to love reading books. Then books became too long and they began replacing them with short newspaper articles that hit them with more excitement quickly. Then American’s traded out their newspaper subscriptions for channel news instead; seeing a live car chase was much more exciting than reading about yesterdays crime in the paper. Soon even newscasts became to long and we demanded one-to-two minute Youtube videos.
Today, if a Facebook post is longer than a paragraph we’re unlikely to read it. Twitter, one of the most popular social media sights online, prides itself on limiting messages to just 140 characters. GIFs are popular beyond belief. At only one to two seconds long I can still find myself skipping through them as quickly as possible.
When coming back to classes after an entire summer with no internet I witnessed a phenomenon that most people miss. I was able to feel my focus decline after spending some time watching Youtibe videos and playing some first-person-shooter video games. Over the summer I had had no connection to these things, and after three months of allowing my brain to relax it was only too clear to see the negative effects of overstimulation.
I had spent the summer living on Cape Cod in the small town of Woods Hole. While there I was cut off from the Internet 90% of the time. When I was connected, I was at work and not supposed to surfing the web. I went on Facebook perhaps four times during those three months, browsed Youtube even less, and never touched my Twitter or Instagram accounts. I was even limited when it came to email and checked it just once per day.
While living on the Cape I picked up a great habit that I am truly grateful for. I became an avid reader. All summer long I ordered books to the house I was staying in and devoured them as quickly as I could. I knew that learning about the world through books was an important part of my education and I took it very seriously. I loved it. I was reading books like ‘The Law of Success” and “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” all summer long, hardwiring my brain to think in new and unique ways.
I set myself a reading schedule and stuck to it religiously. Every morning before work I would wake up at 6:00AM and read until 8:00AM. Then I would work out, shower, and head to my job that began at nine. I did this for weeks at a time. I did this first because I thought it would be a challenge worth completing and second because I loved the content that I was implanting into my skull.
Over that summer I became so engrossed with books that I often took up the habit of reading entire volumes cover to cover in one night. One Friday night I even started reading a new book at 10PM only to close it at 6AM the next morning when I had finished it. After sleeping a few hours I woke up and finished my next 250-page book by Saturday evening. I started reading a third book on Sunday and was about 100 pages in before nodding off to get some sleep before work the next day.
Reading those books over the summer changed my life. Powering through hundreds of pages of text compiled by the world’s most influential authors was a large part of what makes me who I am today.
I wanted to keep reading when I came back to Boston in the Fall. I knew that if I kept up this habit I would learn an immense amount both about myself and about the world. If I allowed the most successful men on the planet to influence my thoughts, words, and actions on a daily basis then I would have a great mindset going forward.
When I got back to school, however, I took a hiatus from reading. Having been away from the Internet for so long, I indulged in long hours on Youtube and social media. With too many friends to see I put reading aside for a couple weeks.
When I tried to pick it back up, I was shocked.
I picked up a book that I had wanted to read during the summer and flipped to the first page. I read about two sentences and then stopped. I couldn’t focus on the text. Within just a few lines I was bored. I wanted to watch a video instead. The words didn’t hold the same excitement I remembered them having. I tried to read further and eventually got through the first chapter, but the words didn’t flow like they used to over the summer. Earlier that month, 50 page chunks of a book would fly by. Now, getting through every single page felt like a mental trek.
I put the book down for a second. I was confused. How could I be so engrossed in my reading material over the summer and so challenged by it now? Over the summer I had sworn that I would become a reader for life, but now I was having trouble getting through even a few lines. Is this why most Americans read less than one book a year?
The inability to focus was shocking. The change in my reading capacity was definite. I thought about what I was feeling and had to ask myself, “Do I have ADHD?” I had gone from reading like a maniac to not being able to comfortably plod through a couple pages. What had changed? All I could think of was my reinsertion into the world of overstimulation.
Since that day when I could barely get through a couple pages in the books I used to love I have been careful to limit my exposure to sites like Youtube as well as video games that are fast paced and action packed. I realize that every time I indulge in them I am less focused and productive the next day.
It’s like clockwork.
I was lucky in that I was able to see this massive difference and deduce (I think) where it came from. It was only because I was able to cut off all this stimulation for three months that I was able to recognize its effect on my ability to focus. I can see why so many people who have been surrounded by this stimulation all their lives may think it is genetic. They may logically believe that the way to solve their inability to focus is by popping a pill that can help cure them of their disease.
I was able to give myself the symptoms of ADHD by giving myself too much stimulation too quickly. The results were definite and I keep seeing them again and again after exposing myself to long periods of watching videos or playing or video games.
If you have trouble focusing on important projects or can’t even get through a book without becoming bored after the first page, try cutting Youtube and video games out of your life for a week or so and see what changes. These sites can be very addicting, and if you’re hooked on them you’ll most likely have trouble letting go. If you’re able to, however, you’ll learn a lot about yourself (and your brain) in the process.