This month - Surviving Sensory Overload by Ellis Anderson
Part One: The Forgotten Benefits of Boredom
During WWII, a young pilot named Dunbar flew harrowing bombing missions, narrowly surviving each time. He returned to base seeking one thing – boredom. Dunbar came to believe that being bored stretched life out and actually made it longer. He claimed that a single excruciating hour spent in the wrong company was equivalent to “eleven-times-seventeen-years.”
Dunbar is a character in Joseph Heller’s classic “Catch 22,” which I read as a teenager. By then, I’d already spent thousands of taffy-like hours in mind-numbing situations and I recognized Dunbar’s theory as a fundamental truth.
Trapped in a schoolroom with a listless teacher, years seemed to pass before I could run through the woods. A hard pew and a long-winded preacher taught me more about the concept of eternity than any sermon. Visiting with elderly aunties (who could think of only one question for children - How is school?), I was sure I’d sprout grey hairs before I could escape to skate or bike or climb trees.
Now that I’m becoming the aging auntie myself (how is school, honey?), I’m nostalgic for the times I spent gazing out a window daydreaming, or lying on the grass watching bugs until my mom called me in for dinner. But that kind of sweet boredom seems lost forever for us all now. Life flies by at a pace Dunbar could have never imagined. Our minds – as well as our spirits - are overwhelmed by unremitting stimulus and multiplying obligations.
Like a crowd at the World Cup, #tweets #hashtags #emails #phone messages and #texts mob together and push toward the turnstile that will grant them our attention. Each day, a stampede seems imminent. The less-aggressive sorts jostle the Chosen Few in front, grumbling and shouting “Hey! No fair! I was here first!”
Escape from the crush into the restorative arms of boredom seems impossible. Indeed, we've sealed off the exits ourselves. Most of us carry self-inflicting cattle prods at all times, packaged in sleek rectangular cases. The devices channel all levels of attention gobblers 24/7, intruding with a cacophony of intentionally irritating sounds and vibrating in a fashion that feels suspiciously like a low-level shock.
The phone/tablets bring with them new responsibilities (buy this obscure new app and then waste valuable time learning to use it, when in reality you'll forget about it next week) and relentlessly remind us of neglected ones (call your aging aunt!).Trifling whims of total strangers can now sidetrack our own trains of thought wherever we go.
Toddlers now swap their tattered security blankets for the plastic box that lights up, and it's both socially acceptable and fashionable to clutch it publicly. Recently, my niece told me that some college friends have their whereabouts monitored by parents, who use the students' cell phones as remote tracking devices. If the student's supposed to be studying at the library, but is partying at a concert? Their phone rats them out.
The solution seemed obvious to me. "Couldn't they just leave their phones at the dorm when they go out?" My niece looked stunned, as if I'd suggested amputation of an arm. "Nobody goes anywhere without their phone."
In addition to GPS tracking, I-phones include a stern “assistant” named Siri. She is supposed to simplify life, but has been deliberately programmed to misinterpret southern accents. Ask her to dial your banker and you’re likely to be connected with a bakery. Tell her you’re ticked off and she answers “I wonder what that’s like, being mad?” in a maddeningly unemotional tone.
But I needSiri with me at all times, because when some ball I’ve dropped comes bouncing by, if I don’t make note of it at that very moment, I forget about it again. Out of sight, out of what little is left of my mind.
Goldfish: superior to humans in one important way?
I’d blame the forgetfulness on aging, except that my younger friends seem to have an even worse time remembering things than I do. Their brains have been unrelentingly besieged since birth by sounds and vibrations and electromagnetic energy waves. They’ve never known the odd luxury of extended boredom.
Boredom once gave us time to consider and neatly sort our experiences before moving on to others. Now we've become hoarders of stimuli. The rooms of our minds are littered with movie scenes, department store music, Youtube clips, Facebook observations, news dramas and television characters. Buried beneath are emotional debts and unprocessed traumas. The whole mess is dusted with a thick layer of guilt. A snow shovel would be handy, just to clear a path for a bit of contemplation.
Sometimes I think the Matrix movie was a glimpse into our present instead of our future. While we’re mesmerized by endless stimulation, evil electronic entities (no doubt led by Siri) are cackling diabolically and slurping up our brains through a straw. At the very least, they’re devouring our ability to focus. Studies show that the average attention span in 2000 was a mere 12 seconds. In 2013, it’d dropped 50%, to eight seconds. It’s no comfort that the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.
But if you’ve read this far in the article, pat yourself on the back. There’s hope. Turn your phone on “airport” and invite the most uninteresting person you know (maybe an aging aunt?) over for an adult beverage. You’ll be forced to slow down. You’ll also learn how an hour can seem like eleven times seventeen years. Dunbar may have been on to something.
Next month, part two: a look at blipverts, dopamine loops and click addictions.