I was recently sitting in the waiting room of a warehouse of a famous Swedish flat-pack furniture emporium. As I waited for my Scandinavian-named bathroom shelf, I found myself under an unexpected attack – a brutal combination of light and sound. Thrown at me all at once: the most efficient, powerful overhead lighting; a large TV screen showing a generic reality programme; another TV screen showing customer order progress; a radio playing in the background; sporadic tannoy announcements; my own smartphone – pulled out habitually; other customers on their smartphones; and the general ambient milling about of staff and customers.
It had been a long day, it was a long journey home – was this amount of sensory “stuff” really what they expect customers to want from their shopping experience? Did we need any of it? The calm, cool minimalism of the furniture – in piles of boxes round the back – hadn't been extended to Customer Service Desk 5. It felt like overload. I was stuck with it and I was also perpetuating it – I couldn't help but contribute to it.
As we solidify our relationship with digital technology, as our eyes, ears and brains become accustomed to a near-constant barrage of media and stimulation, might there be negative effects? Would our brains want such noise if given a choice? Are our bodies expected to simply get used to it over time? Through generations? Could this melee of stimulation slow us down, lead to sensory fatigue or a long-term loss of sensual accuracy?
We hear of people who have lost their sight, finding that the intensity of other senses have increased to compensate. A more acute ability to hear perhaps. I crave focus and clarity – digital technology isn't helping.
Microsoft now want us to move “beyond on the screen” – a digital world blended with the real world. Holograms all around. Digital objects, reminders and adverts planting themselves in our vision, obscuring the potential loveliness of our real world. My retinas can't think of anything worse...
I'm in an unusual position, I combine sensitive eyes – agitated by bright light, especially artificial light and digital screens – with an occupation that requires constant use of a computer screen. I know the healthy routines: “20:20:20” - look away from the computer screen every twenty minutes, at a point twenty feet in the distance, for twenty seconds; trying to mix computer work with paper work and meetings; and staying generally active and consistently exercised. But forming these as daily habits can be difficult and sometimes impractical.
My sensitivity is problematic. Sometimes leading to migraines. But it does mean I consciously try to avoid looking at screens wherever possible. Maybe this in itself is an inadvertently positive habit.
The Independent recently reported that new evidence suggested that too much exposure to screens – TVs, phones and computers – can negatively affect sleeping patterns in children.
Dr Mari Hysing, of the Norwegian research centre Uni Research Health, said:
“Existing evidence shows that the more screen time children have, the more likely they are to experience attention difficulties, anxiety, depression and poor sleep patterns. Children obviously need to use computers to do homework, but the priority for parents and children is moderation.”
Looking at those with internet and gaming addictions, Victoria L. Dunckley M.D., suggests:
“Multiple studies have shown atrophy (shrinkage or loss of tissue volume) in gray matter areas (where “processing” occurs) in internet/gaming addiction. Areas affected included the important frontal lobe, which governs executive functions, such as planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control (“getting stuff done”)”
“Volume loss was also seen in the striatum, which is involved in reward pathways and the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses. A finding of particular concern was damage to an area known as the insula, which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion. Aside from the obvious link to violent behavior, these skills dictate the depth and quality of personal relationships”
Our modern, digital world encourages us, at an increasingly younger age, to constantly plug-in. More apps! More sharing! More content! From these we derive status and short-term gratification. I'm not sure what we gain long-term.
Unnervingly the child at school who, previously didn't have the latest trainers or the brand of yo-yo that everyone else enjoyed, is now the child who can't boast the latest smartphone and hasn't heard of the app that was released last week. It's like we have an obligation to stare at screens.
Most won't notice any direct symptoms of sensory overload, but there are likely long-term effects that could influence our behaviour, our temperament and our cognitive abilities. Like diet, exercise, socialising and alcohol – we should perhaps learn to moderate screen use as part of a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle.
Coming from a generation that remembers the pre-internet world, luckily I can attach sentiment to situations involving face-to-face conversations that aren't interspersed with beeping pockets and don't revolve around today's cat meme.
This cynicism and sensitivity to light could be helping me to avoid the habits – mindless phone checking, too much time on social media, incessant buzz articles – that so many of us know deep-down we should minimise anyway.