Stimuli Addiction

The price of keeping pace in a caffeinated world

Modern life moves at mighty speed. Our food is fast, our Internet connections faster. We e-mail, we upgrade. We work overtime to stay ahead of the competition. We are on the go. Even when we watch television, we watch ER and West Wing—shows with people who are quick-witted, fast moving and stressed out.

The rat-race has never been so brisk. But we adapt. We multitask, we powernap. We spend quality time with each other, in lieu of quantity. We take in loads of information in stride. We grow accustomed to motion blur.

That’s the way it has to be, isn’t it? Or—is it possible we’re making life too hard for ourselves?

Perhaps we live like we drive: Always pushing it five miles over the speed limit—when it’s 55 we go 60; if it was 95 we’d make it an even 100. Perhaps we’re simply becoming addicted to stimulation.

Consider life before television, radio, telephone, even telegraph (it wasn’t that long ago). News generally traveled by foot, or hoof. Intercontinental travel took days or weeks. The pace was slow and the world was huge.

Today journalists are positioned in every nook of the planet, reporting continually. The nightly news promises the world in 22 minutes. For people who can’t wait for that, cable provides “headline news,” with multiple bits of information flashing and scrolling simultaneously. There is so much going on, we want only the essential, only the cream, only the surface. Speed is of the essence.

Are we able to take it all in? Can we make meaningful sense of it? Can we feel deeply about all of it? Perhaps. But only for a moment, and then we must move on—we have other important things to see.

With broadcast tv, satellite, cable, movies, vcrs, dvds, cds, radio, Internet, computer games, there is always something to keep us stimulated. Television, our third-most time-consuming activity after work and sleep, gives us a hyper world of fast cuts, zooms and pans, noise and suddenness. Soon we crave the hyperstimulation. We can only take so much of plain old life, with its slow-paced continuity and conspicuous lack of special effects.

Is it any wonder we are rearing a hyper, adhd generation?

There may be a problem here, but we are moving too fast to pin it down. Let’s slow down for a moment. Think about it. What price are we paying for our short attention spans, our compulsive hyperness?

Don’t answer too quickly—stop reading and think a while.

Let me interrupt you with one answer (you didn’t really stop reading, did you?). The price we pay is depth.

We give up depth in our relationships. Depth in our emotions, depth in our thoughts. We think we have wisdom when we merely have information. We think that living under the same roof is the same as being a family.

Consider the study on father-child interaction cited by Dr. James Dobson in What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. Researchers first asked a group of middle-class fathers to estimate how much time they spent each day with their one-year-old children. The average reply was 15 to 20 minutes. When the researchers used methods to determine the actual amount, they discovered that the average time was really 37 seconds—2.7 encounters each day, 10 to 15 seconds each.

Perhaps we shake our heads and wonder, how can they do that to those kids? But I know that if the fathers in the study read that statistic in the paper, they’d think the same thing: Yeah I should spend more time with my kids, but at least I’m getting in a good 15 to 20 minutes a day. That’s a whole lot better than those 37-second dads.

Then, after a moment’s musing on the matter, they would turn the page and move on. Just like we all do.

There is a vicious cycle at work: Stimuli addiction is both a cause of our shallowness and a symptom of it. It is hard to break free of something so enthralling, so easy, so everywhere. Depth is too hard. Depth is discovering one great book and sitting down with it, getting to know it, really studying it, letting it soak into your life. Instead we load up the bookshelf with books we only skim.

Is this really a problem? Consider.

Stimulation overdose eventually creates numbness. That is, nothing stands out in the cacophony for longer than a moment. Too much noise becomes white noise, like static on an empty television channel.

How then can God—the epitome of depth, of substance, of balance, of quiet meditation, of timelessness, of moral perfection, of everything opposite our shallowness—reach our minds in a lasting way? People even managed to quickly absorb and explain away the devastation of September 11; church attendance spiked, but was back to pre-9/11 levels within three weeks.

Read Matthew 13:1-23, a parable showing what happens when God sows His Word. Some of it is snatched up by the devil; some, people are too shallow to receive; some, people are too addicted to the world to hold on to. The parable has special poignancy in a world jacked up on caffeinated culture.

God is a voice “crying in the wilderness” today (i.e. Luke 3:4). Is your life quiet enough for you to hear Him?

Don’t answer too quickly—stop reading and think a while.