Visual Noise

“Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

T.S. Eliot


We’re living in a noisy world, getting louder every day. But perhaps some of the loudest noises in our lives are the kind we hear with our eyes, not with our ears.

Noise

New Delhi is one of the five loudest cities in the world, just behind Mumbai, Kolkata, Cairo and New York. It’s noise levels are dangerous and traumatic, leading to hearing loss in citizens 15 years earlier than expected. A recent study showed that not a single area of Delhi passed the Central Pollution Control Board’s standards of noise control.

The World Health Organization suggests that healthy noise levels should not surpass 55 decibels during the day and 40 at night. In 2011, researchers from the Centre for Science and Environment found the noise level going up to 100 db in the commercial and industrial zones, and 90 db in some residential zones during peak traffic.

It’s leading to what some experts are calling, sound trauma.

Visual Noise

While Delhi’s audible violence is a threat to our hearing, there’s a silent sort of noise that’s a threat to our peace of mind—visual noise.

Our screens are screaming at us and we’re listening with our eyes, not realising how burdened our minds can be, by the visual noise from our smartphones, computers, televisions and tablets.

It’s the kind of noise that means we cannot think, read or speak to anyone without quickly sneaking a peek at the nearest screen to gives ourselves a fix.

Here’s how it works

  • New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
  • The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush.
  • With fMRIs, you can see the brain’s pleasure centres light up with activity when new emails arrive.
  • So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine.
  • And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine.
  • Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh,dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work.
  • Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.

It’s an addictive cycle leading to information fatigue that makes it difficult to think, the way that hoarding—a psychological difficulty in letting go of things people acquire—makes it difficult to live.

In 1947, the Collyer brothers were both found dead under boxes and piles of junk, phonebooks, trash, newspapers and more than 100 tons of trash they had hoarded.

If our minds are like a house, technology is forcing us to become information hoarders, who cannot think freely because our minds are cluttered with junk.

Natural Cleansing Mechanisms

What’s happening to our minds is not unlike what happens to our brains during the day.

Every day, as we go on with our lives, waste proteins build up between brain cells. But when we sleep, cerebrospinal fluids increase dramatically and wash away these harmful waste proteins.

The good news is the body has a natural cleansing mechanism to save our brains from turning into a landfill—sleeping.

Sleeping makes room for the garbage men of the body to clear out the trash.

Without enough sleep, the “garbage” builds up and the stink works its way out of our mouths. It can make a calm person irritable, cranky and ill-tempered.

If sleep is a natural cleansing mechanism to keep our brains healthy, reflection is an natural cleansing mechanism to save our minds.

The worst thing visual noise has done to our minds is to steal time from quiet, soul-searching, life-saving reflection, introspection and conversation.

We can wax eloquent about the most important questions of our times but we struggle to think reflectively about the direction of our lives.

Reducing the Volume, Returning to Reflection

Visual noise drowns out voices in our lives that we cannot ignore. It makes it difficult to listen to our own souls, to listen to the people we love and to wait for the still small voice of God that likens itself more to a slow-cooked roast than a fast-food meal combo.

Technology is a great servant but a bad master.

In our age of unconscious addictions it’s becoming more important for us to ask ourselves whether we’re losing our hearing to visual noise and whether we are masters or servants to our technology.

We have more ways to buy, but we never have enough.
We have more things to entertain us, but we’ve never been more bored.
We have more ways to connect with people, but we’ve never been more lonely.
We have more access to information, but we’ve never been more confused.
We have more to ease our minds, but we’ve never felt more anxious.
We have more technology to distract us, but we’ve never been more disturbed.

We’re becoming desperate escapists who will listen to any screen that will drown out the noise of our souls, the wisdom of our friends and the voice of God.

The volume of visual noise in our lives needs to be turned down, so we can read more books, take more walks, meet more people, have more conversations, spend more time in silence, listen more attentively to God and let the truth rise to meet us instead of turning to technology to save us.


Image Credit: Jens Schott Knudsen

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