Addiction to Noise and Stimulation (A Brief Thought About Life)

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Stephan provides some interesting insights about the ability for overstimulating food to dull our senses and contribute to addiction, in which he expands the concept to stimulation from other sources such as drugs and video games, and notes the powerful effect that meditation can have in reversing these effects:

Simple Food: Thoughts on Practicality

I agree with Stephan that over-stimulation of all sorts, really of any of the senses, can contribute to addiction and dull our appreciation of the naturally sweet things in life.

I think this applies to food, sex, music, television, and other sensually stimulating activities.

I think there are several dimensions to this. While I think that overstimulation is itself a cause, I think seeking overstimulation is often a reflection of deeper issues inside of us that we have to face.

In my experience, silence can often cause restlessness and anxiety when we are not at peace inside.  In silence, our attention is drawn inward, to all the contradictions, anger, or frustration that might lie there.  Listening to music, watching television, and filling our lives with various types of noise can often drown out this silence so that we can continue to postpone dealing with these issues.

Back when I was 23, I taught a remedial math class to students of ages 16-24 at an institution where students could get a driver's license, a high school equivalency diploma, and learn a trade.  The students came from diverse backgrounds.  Some were immigrants, some had come from the inner city, some from rural America.  In general, the students came from troubled backgrounds of one sort or another, usually poor, often violent.

Unfortunately, the class was set up so that most people were working individually in silence and I was helping them one-on-one.  This meant that there was an awful lot of silence to be kept, and many students felt compelled to break the silence in disruptive ways.

I was at a disadvantage for two reasons.  First, the students entered or left the class based on standardized test scores.  My class was the lowest level, so the most motivated students were always leaving it and the ones who had the most trouble were left behind.  For some of the students, I was the third teacher who had taught that same class to them since they had been there.   Second, most of the other teachers were over twice my age and were far more experienced than I was.  As a result, I had a lot more trouble commanding a strong presence of authority.  I was forced to prove myself worthy of respect over time.

I found that teaching and discussing something useful helped, but I couldn't completely alter the structure of the class.  To help students work silently, I found that playing the right type of music worked wonders.  Hip hop proved incredibly distracting, but something softer like Alicia Keys hit the sweet spot.  It stimulated the senses with enough pleasure to distract from the silence, but without being so over-stimulating that it distracted everyone from their work.

I think in this case many students were afraid of the silence because it would force them to hear the quiet rumblings of all the troubles they had buried inside.  Thus, they would act out to prove that they could be louder and more powerful, and to drown away those rumblings into the background noise.

I think we all act this way to one degree or another.

For many years now, I have periodically abstained from listening to music, watching television, dancing, eating delicious foods, and other sensually stimulating activities for a number of weeks each year to spend some time eating simply and immersing myself in silence.  I find that my ability to tolerate this is directly correlated with the degree to which I am at peace.  During times when I have had more anger and frustration, I have found myself unable to drive ten minutes without putting music on.  It's during these times that I've acutely realized how much I needed to address those inner issues.

So what is the solution?  To seek a life empty of pleasure?

I don't think so.  I think there are times for fasting and times for feasting.  I think that's the theory behind birthday cake.

We need to define the adaptive boundaries of healthy moderation and healthy excess.  We need to understand what the proper ratio is.  We should seek some guidance from tradition, and explore the issue with science.

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  1. […] Chris Masterjohn, PhD, agrees: “[S]ilence can often cause restlessness and anxiety when we are not at peace inside.  In silence, our attention is drawn inward, to all the contradictions, anger, or frustration that might lie there.  Listening to music, watching television, and filling our lives with various types of noise can often drown out this silence so that we can continue to postpone dealing with these issues.” […]

  2. Chris:

    I meant that I don't suspend TV viewing because I want peace and quiet… For the most part, I don't find anything on it enjoyable. Family time? I'm more of a board game type guy.

    My parents always restricted our viewing when my brother and I were younger. We'd sneak in a few extra shows here and there until one day, BAHM, the TV broke. My father simply said that we it had stopped working because we watched it too much and he would not buy a new one.

    6 years we went without a TV, including all 4 years of high school. I'll watch it during major event like during the Olympics or the World Cup. I usually find out who's playing in the Superbowl when I get invited to a Superbowl party. I end up going to those parties but mostly to hang out and be around friends. I cheer when a good play is made, but funny thing is that I cheer on both sides. XD Catches people off-guard – they always HAVE to ask who I want to win.

    Hope that cleared it up. Thanks for your response and congrats on your blog – it's one of my favorites.

  3. Awesome post, Chris.

    Herein lies the problem with most, I think: "there are times for fasting and times for feasting"

    If unstable, either period (fasting or feasting) can get out of control. The instability, as you've eluded to, can derive from many external and/or internal factors.

    "I have periodically abstained from listening to music, watching television, dancing, eating delicious foods, and other sensually stimulating activities for a number of weeks each year to spend some time eating simply and immersing myself in silence." This is pretty hard to do in today's society. I've tried some of these but for other reasons. Like television – I'm not much of a TV viewer. In fact, I haven't watched it since last year during the World Cup. I do, however, immerse myself in reading… A LOT OF READING. Any subject… computer programming, finances, personal development/growth, nutrition… name it. I enjoy silence (or at least classical music) most of the time. But love to interact with others when the occasion calls for it – like a bday party.

    Again, great post. I'm a huge fan of this blog. Keep up the good work, Chris.

  4. came across this; made me think of your post : )

    If there existed no external means for dimming their consciences, one-half of the men would at once shoot themselves, because to live contrary to one's reason is a most intolerable state, and all men of our time are in such a state.
    Leo Tolstoy

  5. Responses to Denise, Rob A, dart, and Katya.

    Denise, thank you for sharing that. I listened to the preview and it seems like something that would help a lot of people, especially while driving.

    While we're sharing particulars, what I had in mind was the Orthodox Christian use of a prayer rope in the practice of hesychasm (holy silence, or the stillness that would be pre-requisite to knowledge of God). It looks somewhat like a Catholic rosary but it's use might be closer to that of Hindu japa beads ( You would use them recite the Jesus Prayer while moving your thumb or finger along the knots once for each prayer. This way you have a relatively unobtrusive and non-distracting physical cue to return your mind to the prayer whenever it might wander.

    The Way of the Pilgrim is an anonymous Russian manuscript about a pilgrim who sets off backpacking in hopes to find someone who can teach him how to pray unceasingly. Whether it's autbiographical or fictional is unclear, but it reflects the common experience of hesychasm among the people in that era and either way it's a good introduction to the practice:

    Rob A, Good points. I would see fasting from food (not necessarily on water only) and from sensory stimulation as intimately connected. I agree with you that intuitiveness is important, but I think you need to balance it with self-control and other values. Remember, of course, that the abundance of options we have at any moment is a result of intensive agriculture and advanced methods of preservation, especially refrigeration and freezing. If you are a Masai, you cannot intuitively choose to drink milk during the five-month dry season. If you're a !Kung San, you're decision to eat giraffe is probably a several-week commitment. Where Michael or I would use it, though, the principal benefit is having a rule of obedience. I would be careful not to politicize this work. We don't mean it in terms of an authority-subjugate relationship. We mean the acquisition of self-sacrificial love.

    To best brief introduction to this concept is Tito Coliander's chapter "On Obedience" in "The Way of the Ascetics":

    I think fasting from the written word could be very useful if you've become addicted to it, especially if you've become addicted to reading blogs, magazines, and other non-essential stuff. These things are great, but anything that's great can begin to oppress you if you make yourself a slave to it.

    dart, thanks, exactly.

    Katya, you're welcome, and thank you for your excellent points.


  6. Thanks for the post, Chris. I'm enjoying the mind-centered direction in the health blogosphere recently.

    It's funny to see that other people "suffer" from compulsive reading/learning, as well. It's a distraction that is easier to justify because it feels more intellectual/purposeful than watching TV, but then again, all methods of procrastination seem valid at the time.

    For those looking for help with mindfulness, I've found simple journal writing quite effective as an exercise. Often, you don't realize how much is on your mind until you start writing.

  7. really nice post Chris, many times we cant spend few minutes without music or talking to some one but when ever we try to associate with stimuli we get used to it and habitually we are addicted , like many people have this habit of listening music while taking food or driving car

  8. I liked this post Chris. Thanks for sharing. I definitely have experienced that comfort with silence (or more broadly, stillness) corresponds well with comfort with myself.

    You and Michael Miles have both written at times about religious fasting, and that cycle of feast and fast, and I find that compelling. The whole Ecclesiastes 'To every thing there is a season' notion makes so much sense to me. I imagine there's something powerful in formalizing these and making it a ritual communal experience, even alongside the possible downside of undermining a more intuitive approach (e.g. fasting when your body asks to feast).

    Another anecdote: I have a friend who took a fast from the written word for a week or two. No newspaper, no computer, no television, no books, etc. Seems like a worthwhile experiment, and also hard for me to imagine, though obviously we humans can do it.

  9. I recently started listening to this CD set:

    It seems to help me to do exactly that, to concentrate on something that is designed to facilitate mindfulness. I've found its effect to be very beneficial in both helping me to be mindful while driving, and in having the courage to experience some emotions rather than seek to avoid them through distractions. I recommend it.

  10. Hi Anonymous,

    That's a good question, but it seems like one that would be highly individualized. I suppose I would recommend finding a professional who is sane, compassionate, skilled, and experienced in dealing with these types of problems, and if you have any spiritual or religious faith explore help from that angle as well.


    I agree that getting antsy without something to read is similar. I didn't mean to suggest there was anything formulaic about the role of auditory stimulation or music. I meant that we often seek stimulation of the senses to draw our attention outward when having our attention drawn inward makes us uncomfortable. There are, of course, many different coping mechanisms, so it's a complex topic that can't be reduced to any one formula.


    Yes, I think this is very related to mindfulness and living in the moment. Another form of distraction would be daydreaming about the future, because this distracts us from the discontent we feel with the present moment, which we want to blame on the circumstances of the moment but which is actually an internal shortcoming, or sickness if you will.

    Perhaps you can begin by putting something in the place of the void. In other words, don't seek to clear your mind, but seek to concentrate on something that is designed to facilitate mindfulness.


  11. @Matt: how about some gentle swimming, with goggles and earplugs, head under water as much as possible, and more just-floating than swimming. A bit like sensory deprivation, but less extreme. Obviously try to find a time when the pool is less crowded. I find swimming like this very relaxing (I'm not interested in swimming fast – I follow the Steven Shaw approach).

  12. Very interesting Chris,

    This sort of thing (at least for me) seems spidered into many different areas. Perfectionism, addiction, depression, general chronic thinking and the mind always craving that ‘next move’. You get addicted due to the pleasure sensations, depressed due to not ultimately dealing with the underlying issues, fostering a perfectionist attitude due your mind jumping ahead and wishing the future to be now when carrying out tasks etc, or simply being too unsettled to focus properly. My experience anyway.

    Do you think this is closely related to mindfulness and living in the moment? i.e. seeking stimulation to avoid the current situation. I know for me when walking places with my headphones on and a pumping beat that I am completely distracted from the present moment. Was interesting when I realized this – I didn’t notice the scenery, the temperature, how my body was feeling and reacting etc during the walk. Almost in a trance like state.

    Are there any tips for implementing a stimulation ‘fast’? Because I have clearly become hardwired to crave stimulation being alone with my mind is an uncomfortable and a daunting experience! I tried doing a mindfulness body scan and each body part that was mentioned during the meditation I had the urge to move, itch, figit! Kind of the opposite to what it’s trying to help with!

  13. I love music but don't like to have it overlying the ambient in my daily life and especially not when I'm driving. My daily commuter car for the last decade didn't even have an audio system (recently replaced with one that does, only because the model I wanted wasn't available without one). Occasionally I may play some Bach or Renaissance choral music to help me focus at work but I go weeks without it.

    However I do read constantly and finding myself with time to kill and nothing to read can make me very antsy. Maybe that's the same thing.

  14. Chris, what do you think are good way to tackle traumas? I'm prone to addiction, and have a rather traumatic past, but really haven't found what helps with that specific problem (traumas), besides improvements in food and stress. Therapy, self-therapy? Which one?

  15. I think the logic presented here may be backwards and some peoples personal accounts support this.

    We seek out noise and stimulation because it is rewarding <- incorrect and backwards

    We are rewarded because we seek out noise and stimulation <- correct logic

    The comment from Emily Deans highlights this, she was exposed to a quiet environment when younger, therefore her brain sets up reward pathways that activate and reward her upon finding a quiet environment in the future.

    My guess is the brain does this to reward familiarity as familiarity is probably secure and safe.

    Same thing as to why people have thier "comfort zones".

  16. 'Stephan provides some interesting insights about the ability for overstimulating food to dull our senses and contribute to addiction..'

    He does indeed. There is another aspect to this which may be relevant to the food addiction story. I have come to believe that you can be addicted to micronutrient deficiency. Micronutrient supplementation has been found to improve children's non-verbal intelligence, meaning their ability to make mental images. Making mental images means you can see what other people are feeling, and feel it yourself.

    If you make female animals deficient for manganese, they lose their maternal instinct. Presumably, they cannot make the mental images that connect the helplessness of their offspring with memories of their own helplessness at that age.

    I remember reading an article in the Annual Review of Nutrition about US Army rations. All micronutrients were considered except copper and manganese, which there was reason to believe were too low. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might suggest this was deliberate. You don't want soldiers having sympathy for the enemy, do you.

  17. Very insightful Chris, this is yet another area where we could learn something from our ancestors. My personal bugaboo has been this very device, the computer. In our modern society we now even rely on it for knowledge, communication, entertainment and much more. It is easy to become overstimulated easy. I've noticed the more I minimize my computer time the better I feel.

  18. Jenna, thank you, and you're welcome. Anonymous, very interesting, thank you.

    Denise, thank you for sharing your story, I can definitely relate, and I agree that fasting from auditory stimulation is an important and generally neglected form of fasting.

    Emily and Bonita, thank you for sharing your perspectives. I wholeheartedly agree that this is not a simple and straightforward concept wherein noise protects against the failure to find inner peace. It's a rather complicated topic. As Mike noted, music is a powerful force and different types of music can be quite different in effect; this is true of non-musical noise as well. As LaceyC noted, there will be cultural (and individual) differences in what is perceived as good or bad noise. Quietude can be very beneficial, and there are too many ways to bury or unbury the negative things in our life to come up with a simple formula about the effects of quietude or noise.

    Great thoughts everyone. Thanks for your contributions!


  19. interesting post (as usual). not that i disagree with what you're saying but my experience is a bit more in line with emily's, though i can't say i came from a quiet childhood. i sometimes find noise and other clutter painful. i think it's very food related. i ate some less than fabulous "food" the other day and the next day i was a complete wreck for a while. i had to turn off the car radio and plug my ears because i couldn't bear the noise of the highway driving. in the past (when i regularly ate poorly) i wore ear plugs in some lectures where there was a lot of conversation or when it was an early morning class with bright lights and the prof was prone to yelling–because people would talk in class.

    the one time i crave quiet the most is at the dog park. there's lots of woods,sand, sunshine, birds, squirrels, etc there, and i actually tried to use my mp3 player once but after less than one song i HAD to stop. in that context i couldn't tolerate it and i felt like i was missing out on something.

    and just for the record, no, i am not at peace.

  20. Fantastic, insightful post. I agree and relate.

    I thought I'd disentangled myself from most modern distractions (TV, etc.) until I lost my iPod a few years ago. I'd been using it virtually every time I left my apartment — on the bus to work, walking to run errands, shopping for groceries, hiking — my ears were never without headphones. As soon as it was gone and I had nothing to listen to but the sound of my own thoughts, I actually felt panicky and anxious. My mind wanted to grasp for something external instead of having to confront itself. Eventually the silence became liberating, a sort of forced meditation, and I started finding it much easier to stay present, to connect with strangers passing by (even if only a shared smile), to notice little details on streets I'd walked hundreds of times before, etc.

    If everyone tried going on a "noise fast," I think the reintroduction of TV and abrasive music would feel similar to downing a box of Ho Hos after eating an unprocessed diet for a year. Artificial and unsettling. It's hard to gauge the impact of high stimulation until you're away from it for a while.

  21. Personally, I was raised in a rather quiet household with classical music played most often, and the TV was typically turned to PBS when on when I was very young, anyway. A large amount of noise and stimulation distress me. I love peace and quiet and rarely get enough of it these days. A friend of mine who was part of a large family doesn't even notice shouting and banging and the like. A perfect vacation for me would be a quiet beach or a secluded mountain cabin.

  22. Seth Roberts has done some interesting research on diurnal moods, and how human moods tend to crater in the evening. His hypothesis is that it would make sense for moods to fall when it got dark.

    Thanks to artificial light, though, it's not dark when we get depressed, so we reach for the crappy food and the remote to spike our mood until it's time to pass out.

  23. Mike,

    Yes, I agree, there is much more to it than what I wrote.

    In this case, there were very clearly people who had particular anxieties related to past traumas, and particular methods of taking the remembrance away from them. I don't think it's appropriate to discuss them in detail here. In any case, I think these are issues we all face so I'm not singling anyone out. I think it is very wise to harness the positive aspects of music. But if one can't deal with silence some times, I think this says something about more than the benefits of music.


  24. Stephan and Aaron, excellent thoughts, thank you for sharing. I'm not familiar with those authors so I will have to read them at some point. Aaron, I probably should have listed "anxieties" among the things that people have to face when there are no distractions.

    Chris and Bryan, thank you for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    LaceyC, these are excellent observations and I agree with them. I see them as complimentary rather than alternative to mine. I don't believe there is anything psychological that isn't physiological, or that there is anything phsyiological that affects behavior but isn't psychological.

    I did have a student lecture me for a bit about how silence is for white people. Of course, I was not the one imposing silence and even my use of music was against the rules, but it worked incredibly well. But just because there are different cultural expectations doesn't mean this same basic process isn't working across cultures.


  25. I don't know Alicia Keys music, but I think there may be more going on there than just its being a "distract[ion] from the silence".

    I also think it's likely to be more than just an amount of pleasure – "enough" – in some Benthamite felicific calculus way.

    I think music can have an incredible ability to organize (or disorganize) people's responses. Work songs didn't exist for nothing and probably did more than just give time. Oliver Sacks was able to get profoundly catatonic patients to move with the help of music (as well as L-Dopa). See Awakenings. Likewise, Sacks tells of a brain-damaged musician who can only really experience time and organize experience while he's playing (Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain).

    I think different kinds of music really do have different moral qualities, as Plato thought (if not necessarily in the way he thought). This, of course, is why he wanted political control over music in his Republic. That's hardly something we would wish for, but we should recognize that different types of music have different qualities, affect listeners in different ways and provide an interesting (and perhaps sometimes disturbing) window onto aspects of our society. There is a brilliant essay online by philosopher, professor of aesthetics, and composer Roger Scruton, giving a persuasive account of what he believes to be the social meanings inherent in different kinds of music.

  26. I agree that many people are afraid of silence due to psychological factors, but there are others as well. I know people with ADHD who need music while they work to muster enough dopamine to concentrate on complex tasks. (Would like to see Dr. Emily Deans comment on this.)

    Also, having taught ethnically diverse groups of GED college freshmen for 23 years, I can tell you that the socially acceptable noise level varies tremendously between ethnic groups. What Chris encountered in his classroom could have been psychological as he posits, or it could simply be that growing up, these students never experienced silence and had no idea what it is.

  27. Excellent. For a while I was in the habit of only being able to fall asleep if the radio was on. Silence made me think too much.

  28. @Chris and Stephan,

    I agree with your ideas about distraction seeking as manifestation of anxiety or annoyance. Perhaps it reflects the need to take action, but without the ability or knowledge of how to take action or which action to take to resolve a conflict or dilemma. Self reflection reveals that it is at times when I feel like I want to talk to somebody who made me upset, or try to resolve a problem, but the person is out of contact or the problem must wait for a proper time for me to act to resolve it, that I pace, or have trouble sleeping, or cannot focus on my work or reading, or seek food, drink, or music to occupy my mind until the opportunity to attack the problem becomes available. The other insight I can bring is that a time-interval filled with some activity (passive or active) is perceived to be shorter than the same interval of time spent in quiescence. Perhaps it is this perceptual "temporal contraction" that reinforces distraction-seeking in the face of anxiety with a delayed opportunity for action. Cf Ed Fantino's Delay Reduction Theory of operant reward in learning theory.

  29. Hi Chris,

    I couldn't agree more. I've come to exactly the same conclusion; that we use sensory stimulation to distract ourselves from unpleasant emotions. A simple example is tapping the foot when we're bored or annoyed. I think that nail biting, cuticle picking and other compulsive behaviors of that nature fall into the same category. Self-harm like cutting is probably the same thing, taken to an extreme because the negative emotions that necessitate it are stronger. I also think that garden-variety muscle tension/pain and most neck/back spasms are the same phenomenon (John Sarno's theory).

    When I see people who can't bear silence, who walk around listening to music all the time, I suspect that those are people who have a hard time facing their own lives on a moment-to-moment basis. But I think we all do it to some extent. Everyone finds ways to manage his/her own negative emotions, whether they're aware of it or not.

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