Attention diet: space, technology and people as sensory overload
In The Globe and Mail article ” Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”,
Alex Hutchinson explores the results from a study, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, found that volunteers suffering from depression who took a 50-minute walk in a woodland park improved their cognition, as measured by the ability to remember a random string of digits and repeat them in reverse order, compared to those who took a walk through city streets. An earlier study found similar results in subjects who weren’t depressed.
“ The lead researcher Marc Berman, a research fellow at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, makes a distinction between two types of attention: “voluntary,” in which we consciously focus on something; and “involuntary,” in which something grabs our attention. The ability to direct voluntary attention is crucial in daily life (and for cognitive tasks like remembering random digits), but it’s easily fatigued. Dr. Berman and his colleagues believe that going for a walk in the park gives voluntary attention a break, since your mind has a chance to wander aimlessly and be engaged – involuntarily but gently – by your surroundings.
“In a lot of natural areas, you’re away from loud noises and distractions,” Dr. Berman explains. “It tends to be less crowded so you don’t have to worry about bumping into people, and it also has interesting stimulation to look at, which captures your attention automatically.”
In contrast, honking horns and traffic lights and crowded sidewalks – and pretty much every other ingredient of modern life in a big city – constantly force you to exert your voluntary attention to react or block them out, leaving you more cognitively depleted.”
Children are born today in a very demanding sensorial and social environment, given how much less able to filter date than adults, their brain functions must have to adapt to these bombardment of toxins.
Adding to these attention seeking environment poor air quality, and as Hutchinson points out:
” A single exposure to polluted air can trigger lung and heart problems, and chronic exposure has been linked to cognitive decline. Even downtown parks and riverside bike paths are likely to have significantly better air quality than busy city streets, and trees offer an additional protective effect. The level of vehicle emissions just 200 metres away from a road is already four times lower than it is on the sidewalk next to the road.”
As pointed out by Therese Rowley in the article, multi sensory children, we also don’t know what the collective impact of electromagnetic fields such as cell phones, computers, videogames, microwave ovens, wireless environments, etc. is on children today.
No wonder a walk in nature or relationships with animals can help, I personally would add that in nature all senses can relax. Smell, hearing, empathy, skin, energy sensors are less exposed to toxins and recharging on natural sounds, smells, air, magnetic energy etc. I think that part of the answer is that we can easily synch with natural waves and fields and that in such settings we no longer sense the technological and pollution layers that are so intensely packed in cities.
I am experiencing the difference for myself. Air, water, wind, soil and sand create an environment that allows my body and mind to relax and become at one with the environment. We are animals, we need to be in sync with what surrounds us. This is particularly important to highly sensitive people.
And finally there are fewer people. As I discussed in another post on empathy, Empathy is a double edge sword. In a peaceful space, it is awesome, but in a stressful environment, which I find most social setting to be (Work, family reunion, when we work too much, etc) sensing stress can drive me insane. It can drive me to deep levels of depression if I do not stop the input.
One thing which really astonishes me to this day is how much I and my kids can mirror and mimic how others perceive us. When someone believes I am stupid, I become that stupid individual, When I am surrounded by angry people I enact “angry-ness”, even if I am not angry. When my kids are around someone who thinks they are weird, they immediately become agitated, use incoherent speech. If me or my husband are stressed, the kids immediately show it….. Empathy is a double edge sword… it can be wonderful… or hell…
Scientists have demonstrated the existence of mirror neurons humans: According to Wikipedia:
“mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primates and other species including birds. “
This neuron is key to empathy and seems to me that HSP exist to help this world move towards what Jeremy Rifkin calls an empathic civilization and what Matthew Taylor believes may be 21st century enlightenment.
“Sensed” empathy explains why sensitive people may seem strange to others. As most people are completely unaware of how their energy affect others. So we learn to compensate, but not in positive ways. I always have a laptop in front of me when in a meeting in order to create an energy and visual barrier between me and others. I never used to be able to look at people in the eyes as what I sensed was too intimate, the core of their being and often saw very negative things that simply drained me. Same with my sons, they can’t yet filter, so they have a very difficult time in unknown social settings and busy settings. My eldest is learning strategies to cope, my little one does not have that control yet. HSP are sponges for everyone else’s emotions without becoming consciously aware of their own emotions, they can not help but to absorb others emotions and thinking. This makes awareness of emotions and sensations the most important skill for them to learn. As far as I am concerned, it is a form of literacy and as important to an empath than learning how to read. Reading someone is like reading a book, once you know how to control it.
I am learning to listen to my senses in a positive way and to eliminate negative inputs. I am trying to help my kids learn how to do so as well. But one day in the social world and we come home exhausted….. This social exhaustion is hard to explain to others….. and it affects us physically, if we don’t rest a lot, we get sick and fatter.