In the late 1960′s researchers at the University of Tubingen, Germany, noticed a significant drop in the sensory perception and general awareness in their students. The students weren’t as aware of information from their environment, or at least weren’t registering it in the same ways young people had previously.
A joint study was created between the university and the Gesellschaft fur Rationaell Psychologie (GRP) to explore the phenomenon.
About four thousand students ranging in age from late teens to early twenties were studied in a research project which spanned an over twenty-year period. What the researchers found is rather alarming.
Apparently our ability to process subtle stimuli is “decreasing at a rate of about 1 percent per year”.
On top of that “delicate sensations” are increasingly being “filtered out” of our consciousness. Now, in order for our brains to register sensory information, “especially strong stimuli” are needed (the German translation for this literally reads “brutal thrill” stimuli).
Subtle and delicate sensations aren’t being perceived. Instead only the brutal thrills are eliciting significant response.
To account for this, German researchers noted an elevation in the gating level of a part of the brain called the RAS or reticular activating system (The RAS is the region where sensory input from the body is collected and synthesized, then sent to the higher brain for processing).
The researcher’s conclusion was that the high-intensity stimuli that the young people in the study had been subjected to since birth (keep in mind this was in the 1960′s-80′s, decades before iPad and XBox) along with a corresponding lack of appropriate nurturing and natural development, is resulting in a new type of sensory processing.
They call this new processing style the “new brain”.
The New Brain
In the new brain, sensory information below a certain level of intensity is not being registered at all because it is insufficient to cross the high RAS threshold into conscious awareness.
According to psychologist Henner Ertel:
The brain had set a new sensation threshold, so to speak, and refused to recognize sensations below this new limit, sensations that would have been unconditionally accepted before.
This new sensation threshold was not considered remarkable at first, until the 1980s when Ertel reported a reduction in additional senses:
Suddenly all of the senses were impaired. The brain refused to take any action on a significant proportion of the stimuli. It was getting more and more difficult to stimulate the corresponding centers in the cerebral cortex.
One example of this new sensation threshold relates to the sense of sight.
The researchers found that optical information being processed by the new brain is not being evaluated in the same way it had been in the past. Twenty years ago the average subject could detect 350 different shades of a particular color, for example. Today that number is only 130.
In another study adults were shown what are known as the “Flesher videos”, in which people were dismembered or mutilated. They routinely experienced disgust and revulsion, and many got up and walked out of the viewing. Younger people shown the same videos however, watched without emotion and were only concerned whether or not the plot was exciting.
The GRP studies also found that the ability to distinguish sounds is declining.
For example, sixteen years ago the average German could distinguish 300,000 sounds, while today that number is only 180,000, and for many children the level is only 100,000.
The Loss of Subtlety
In the new brain, a steady input of high-level stimuli is needed to keep one from sinking into a state of sensory isolation and anxiety. There is a tendency to avoid natural settings such as parks and other outdoor venues because they don’t offer intense enough sensory input to keep awareness functioning.
The new brain must create environments with high level stimuli to feel engaged.
In his book The Biology of Transcendence, author Joseph Chilton Pearce shares an excerpt from Dr. Harald Rau, a professor at the Institute of Medical Psychology at the University of Tubingen. Dr. Rau says,
It is apparent that the cross-linkages [networks for sensory synthesis and associative thinking] have been reduced, and that the capacity [to screen out stimuli] has been enormously increased Previously, an optical stimulus would be directed through various brain centers and would also activate the olfactory center, for example. Today it appears that entire brain areas are being skipped over. The optical stimulus goes directly and exclusively to the visual center the stimuli are then processed faster, but the stimuli are inadequately networked [not integrated by other stimulus centers] and not enhanced by emotional input.
What does all this mean?
The German researchers claimed that people born after 1969 showed brain functioning that could tolerate extremes of dissonance and discord. In other words, disruptive and inappropriate stimuli were processed without the individual noticing the discrepancies.
What once created a split or division of consciousness, no longer had the same effect.
We are increasingly losing the ability to distinguish subtle nuance and depth, increasing our ability to take in previously distressing stimuli without batting an eye, and losing our ability to feel.
Think about how many less musical tones an average pop-music song has, versus a piece of classical music. Or consider the rather alarming fact that in 1950, American high school students had a working vocabulary averaging 25,000 words while today that level has dropped to about 10,000.
We are registering less sights and sounds and using less words to describe our world. In essence we are losing our senses. But is there a way to get them back?
Can You Reverse the Downward Spiral In Awareness?
In Minding the Body, researcher Donald Bakal explores a phenomenon known as somatic awareness, “an emergent property of the nervous system” that contributes to the “full integration of sensory information into consciousness.”
Unlike the Eastern meditation concept of mindfulness, which refers to a transcendence of our usual state of consciousness, with somatic awareness the attention is directed to one’s “bodily experience”.
The body is the vessel through which all sensations are being processed (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell all involve physical sensory receptors). So, it would make sense that one of the critical keys to increasing awareness and appreciating subtlety lies in the quality of one’s relationship to their physical body and its sensations.
This “quality” of relationship to one’s own body is the essence of somatic awareness, which Bakal describes as,
A dimension of bodily health that depends on both psychosocial factors outside the skin and psychobiological factors within the skin… a complex balancing act involving many factors controlled by the mind and body. Somatic awareness is an emergent property of mind-body function that is central to the individual’s effort to balance these factors in an effort to maintain health and well-being.
Somatic awareness offers a way to reverse the downward spiral in awareness. I’ll explain…
The New Indifference
The researchers at GRP feel that over the past twenty-five years the brain of the average individual has undergone significant changes in its organization. Human beings can now take in very powerful stimuli that are discordant, senseless, or contradictory without being bothered.
Trend researcher Gert Gerken has labeled the ability to ignore this type of stimuli the new indifference.
To remain indifferent, one must stay disconnected from the sensations that their body is experiencing (the RAS gating level must remain high so the higher brain doesn’t register the sensations).
To reduce indifference, then, one must increase awareness of the sensations that their body is experiencing (lower the RAS gating level) and find a way to to register those previously ignored sensations in their higher brain.
In my experience working with thousands of people with varying degrees of this “new indifference” over the past sixteen years, I can say emphatically, “Yes, it is possible to reverse this downward spiral of awareness.” and furthermore, “It is possible to dramatically increase awareness, enhance connection and expand the ability to distinguish and appreciate subtle nuance and depth in our lives.”
How Can We Teach Our New Brains Old Tricks that Help Us Thrive in Our Modern World?
The research claims that our brains are now processing more intense levels of information but less of it reaches our consciousness.
If you were born before 1949, you have what the researchers call “old-brain” reactions. You are calibrated to notice disruptive or inappropriate stimuli in what would otherwise be a harmonious perceptual process and react to it.
This explains why so many people over the age of sixty are often triggered into a fight-or-flight reaction by the same stimuli that a twenty year old doesn’t even notice!
So now the problem is two-fold: The old brain’s preference for harmony and it’s higher sensitivity triggers a nearly constant fight-or-flight state. The new brain’s lack of subtle awareness and need for intense and disruptive stimuli create a flat affect, loss of enjoyment of “the simple things” and diminishing aesthetic levels.
How then, does one enhance awareness and decrease indifference without being constantly overwhelmed by our modern world?
The following are two of the modalities that we offer at the Well Being Center specifically designed for creating changes in somatic awareness and sensory-motor strategies internally, in your brain and nervous system:
The following tips and ideas are from Thomas Poplawski, a Waldorf educator. In conclusion, they include simple yet impactful things that you can do for your children and yourself to create awareness-enhancing changes externally, in your surrounding environment:
1. Unplug. Keep your childs life free of television, videos, computer games, and movies until at least the age of ten, and then be very careful about what and how much they experience. For most families this is an exceedingly radial recommendation, because we are addicted to the media. The oft-heard justification that there are many educational programs on television and that computers can foster learning is something like the alcoholic citing the nutritional aspects of beer. Content is only a small part of the problem with electronic media. For young adults, exploration of the possibilities of media and computers my be desirable, but in the formative years when the brain is developing it is anathema. Recent research clearly shows that a child exposed to such media fails to develop neurologically in a normal and healthy way. There are many good books on this issue, for example, Jerry Manders Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and Jane Healys Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Cant Think and What We Can Do About It.
2. Slow down your lifestyle and give family life the time it needs and deserves. The concept of quality time has been largely discredited. It is now increasingly clear that in family life quantity time is crucial. We need to spend more time with our children in a regular, consistent, unhurried way. We need to sit down to dinner as a family every day (and to linger at the table), spend time in the evenings relaxing and doing things together, go out on weekend family outings, and so on. Jon Kabat-Zinns book Mindful Parenting includes helpful ideas in this direction.
3. Give your child many and regular experiences of nature. Find a place for nature in your family life. This means frequent and regular activities in the outdoors for you and your child. Take your infant out in the baby carriage for walks; play outdoors with your toddler, rain or shine; and go hiking, canoeing, and camping with your older child. Bring nature into the home with a seasonal festival table like the one found in the Waldorf classroom, on which are placed things from nature that reflect the special quality of the season. Use bouquets of flowers, twigs, and grasses to decorate your home. Grow an indoor and/or an outdoor garden. Get a pet.
4. Bring in the arts into your home, and do so without the aid of electronics. Every Waldorf first-grader learns to play the recorder, but parents even those without musical experience can also learn to play this lovely instrument. The informal family concerts that can then take place will provide memories cherished for life. Sing every day, ideally without radio or taped accompaniment. Paint, draw, and do beeswax or clay modeling with your child. Take art, dance, or even eurythmy classes yourself. Hang artwork on your walls; take the family to classical and other acoustic concerts, dance performances, and museums.