How Has Hyperstimulation Changed Us?

Historical theories shed light on the unique sensory qualities of modern life.

Posted Sep 08, 2020

 Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui

There’s no denying that modern life is hectic. We’re always rushing around, racing against time, and our phones bombard us with fast, flashy content every minute of the day. Put simply, even the most “boring” American life is highly stimulating.

This isn’t a new observation. In fact, it was one of the first things people noticed during the nineteenth century as industrialization escalated, cities grew, transportation sped up, and consumer culture exploded. People realized—and frequently commented on the fact—that they were living in hyperstimulating times. Almost immediately, social theorists recognized that modern life had novel neurological and psychological effects.

Over time, we’ve developed our own psychological theories to account for daily experience. Nevertheless, we’ve become so accustomed to hyperstimulation that in many cases, it’s lost its feeling of “hyper”-ness. For that reason, it’s worthwhile to revisit historical theories of modern stimulation and see what psychological insights they might provide.

Sensationalist Media

To their inhabitants, cities have always felt busy, but nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cities saw growth unlike ever before. Trams and cars raced through narrow streets alongside pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. Millions of people jostled in cramped apartments and packed city streets, while factories belched smoke and noise.

Ben Singer has combed through early twentieth-century newspapers to highlight the urban “fixation on the sensory assaults of modernity.” He explains that media focused on chaos with “dystopian alarmism that… characterized much of the period’s discourse on modern life.”

Sensationalist papers depicted violent train wrecks, dangerous city streets, and horrific factory incidents. Readers saw their deepest anxieties come to life on the front page, which validated their fears and heightened their anxiety about the perilousness of the city.

This irony wasn’t lost on psychologists and social theorists. Sigmund Freud quoted the neurologist Wilhelm Erb: “The exhausted nerves seek recuperation in increased stimulation and in highly-spiced pleasures, only to become more exhausted than before.” This should sound familiar. Doomscrolling generates anxiety, yet we find it hard to look away.

Modernity creates a double-bind where we long for an oxymoron—stimulating relaxation. We crave entertainment, stimulation, excitement, but in so doing, we deny ourselves the chance to slow down, engage, and recuperate. Sensationalist media is evidence of hyperstimulus’ addictive power. 

The Stimulus Shield

Imagine if, your whole life, you’ve never moved faster than the speed of your own feet or a horse-drawn carriage. Suddenly, you find yourself seated inside a metal behemoth, and before you can get your bearings, you’re shot off into the distance. That’s what riding a train for the first time felt like.

It would be natural to be afraid. After all, human bodies weren’t built to travel that quickly. But somehow, people managed to quell their fears and accustom their bodies, not only to tolerate train travel but to accept it as an often-tedious everyday occurrence.

Sigmund Freud offered a tentative theory for why this was possible: the stimulus shield. The more exposed our consciousness is to sensation, the thicker our skin grows, so to speak. We become numb, and it takes more and more stimulation to get through. This “crust,” as Freud put it, is our stimulus shield that protects us from going berserk every time we meet a new hyperstimulating experience.

Once you’re used to a certain level of stimulation, it’s difficult (or impossible) to return. The historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch likens it to warfare: “[the] consciousness of the soldier in the modern mass army has been so deeply conditioned by the stimuli specific to modern battle organization that this soldier would find himself totally helpless in the battle situation of the chivalrous duel—not for reasons of weapons or technology, but for psychic ones.”

From this perspective, modernity has thickened our sensory skin to such an extent that we aren’t able to perceive subtler sensations. We have to clobber ourselves over the head with stimulation to register it as entertaining, meaningful, or even stimulating in the first place. The more stimulated we become, the less stimulation we actually feel.

The Adaptation of the Senses

Karl Marx wrote, “The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.” The ways that we sense and perceive the world has been conditioned throughout history.

One of the most pernicious forms of conditioning that Marx saw firsthand was the advent of industrialized labor. Marx lived in an era where factories forced workers (including children) to endure dangerous, crowded conditions for 15 or 16 hours per day, with no minimum wage. At least in the United States, factory labor no longer looks like this, but these conditions still exist across the globe.

Still, even in the most “humane” factory, Marx argued that humans’ senses were being formed in harmful ways. Machine labor, he claimed, “exhausts the nervous system to the utmost.” Over time, this robs workers of purpose.

Put bluntly, when you’ve sewn three hundred pairs of pants in a day, the 301st pair doesn’t mean much to you, emotionally or psychologically speaking. This is how laborers become alienated—the work becomes so robotic and meaningless that it’s inhuman. There’s no emotion or fulfillment attached to one’s daily tasks.

In Marx’s eyes, alienation isn’t just a psychological condition; it’s not the same as boredom or exhaustion. It’s equally a physiological—sensory—problem. In the same way that the stimulus shield might harden us to subtler sensations, Marx argued that alienation robbed human life of sensory color.

Marx may have been writing about factories, but the concept of alienation applies to other contexts. Today, the drive for efficiency, productivity, and continual growth is so great that even the most fulfilling jobs can feel like a grind. Burnout is such a common phenomenon that millennials have even been called “The Burnout Generation.” The ever-increasing speed of modern life and push for efficiency have unintended sensory and psychological effects.

Moving Forward

I'm not anti-modern. I love Netflix and roller coasters and airplanes as much as the next person. But these historical theories remind us that modern life does not come without consequences for human perception.

As timeless as our senses seem, we do not experience the world in the same way someone would have experienced it three hundred years ago. We have trained our senses, bodies, and minds to respond to the world’s many stresses and pleasures.

But the world—and our perception of it—will not always be as it is now. It’s worth asking: How has hyperstimulation changed us, and moving forward, how much more stimulation do we need?

References

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844).

Petersen, Anne Helen. Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. New York: Random House, 2021.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Modern Life.” (1903). Blackwell Publishing, accessed August 28, 2020. https://www.blackwellpublishing.com/content/bpl_images/content_store/sample_chapter/0631225137/bridge.pdf

Singer, Ben. “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism.” In Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, edited by Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 72-99.

Freud, Sigmund. 'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness (1908) and Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).