Sensory Overload

14 May, 2019 / Mateusz

Everyday life provides us with hundreds of situations in which our cognitive processes are put to the test by a flood of incoming information. Technological development has resulted in pervasive advertising in an extremely wide range of diverse stimuli. The increasing proficiency requirements and overloaded learning programs that are not adapted to the capabilities of children, cause the youngest ones to struggle with unusual information stress. Furthermore, the majority of us have access to the Internet and its millions of files, movies, music libraries and information that we cannot possibly process. How can we live with sensory overload and protect ourselves from it?

There are many academic articles that inform us of the mechanisms that provide defence against this ever-present deluge of information. Even in prehistory, a man had sensory perceptions necessary for survival, for the continuation of the species and prosperity, as well as those that appeared to have no purpose. However, selecting which important details to focus on and omitting any incoming stimuli unconducive to the performance of important tasks, developed the required defence mechanisms.

Flight or Fight

Studies on correlative heart function and the origin of stimuli also played a significant role in research on sensory overload. Observations revealed that the heart rate increased significantly (in relation to concentration on exogenous stimuli) in people who focused on internal stimuli, involving the same processes of thinking and problem-solving. It is common knowledge that a higher frequency of heart rhythm is associated with faster blood flow, thus brain and mental activity increase. Similarly, the increase in heart rate occurs in stressful situations when the “flight or fight” response is triggered by the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, causing an acute biological reaction to stress.

In prehistoric times, when people were not worried about wages, professional performance or school grades, stress was mainly associated with the threat to life and the continuation of genes. Thus, the improved brain blood supply was of an adaptive characteristic, because the elevated quality of mental work resulted in more efficient information processing and thus improved the likelihood of making accurate decisions to ensure survival. Such a system still works in humans; however, the amount and intensity of stress are different. Thus, it appears our body is programmed to support our survival and protect us from the influx of stimuli via this selection process.

Unfortunately, these natural defence processes are not always enough. Increasingly, the inundation of information that we are required to process exceeds the physical capabilities of our body. Today, in order to keep up with the labour market or school requirements, we cannot allow ourselves to select stimuli and then partially reject them at the moment of overloading. The pace of life requires us to receive and properly process an excessively large amount of information, which exceeds the capacity of our nervous systems and disrupts its proper operation. This situation is sensory overload. Its symptoms are a sense of chaos and confusion, a feeling of constant fatigue and exhaustion, lack of concentration, an aversion to learning or problems with memorizing and analysing content.

Ways to fight sensory overload

A defensive tactic that helps children cope with excessive amounts of stimuli is to cut off the source of the stimulus, for example by covering the eyes or ears. Adults, however, usually postpone tasks that seem beyond their capabilities, and seek a source of relaxation. Some may deal with the excess of stimuli by taking a walk outside, others listen to relaxing music, or work out, take a bath or go for a swim, while others simply daydream. It is also recommended to use weighted quilts and blankets that have a documented therapeutic effect in cases of sensory disorders in both children and adults. Studies show that weighted blankets contribute to a significant reduction in anxiety and stress. They also cause the secretion of the hormone of happiness called serotonin, with the simultaneous reduction of cortisol, also called the stress hormone. When the body is covered with a heavier blanket, receptors send information of a specific spatial location to the brain, so that the nervous system calms down and leaves the waking state, thus enabling sleep and more effective rest.

But what if we have to prepare for an important assignment at work or an exam? Above all, we must remember our own physical and mental limitations. We must be aware that introducing new knowledge into long-term memory requires repeating the given information at appropriate intervals, therefore the best results are obtained using a systematic and regulated work pace, gradually assimilating smaller portions of information. However, in relation to the implementation of tasks that absorb cognitive processes other than memory, it is worthwhile to plan the tasks wisely, distributing the workload in such a way that the mind is able to effectively implement them.

Sources: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine; personalgrowthpsychology