Silence and Slowness

A Pandemic of Noisy Speed: Excitotoxicity and the Cultural Dis-ease of Chronic Hyperarousal

  1. Summary: The Dis-Ease of Speed and Noise
  2. Excessive Stimulation and Excitotoxicity
  3. Interlude
  4. Systemic Excitotoxicity: A Culture of Dis-Ease

Speed is a way to prevent ourselves from having to deal with something we do not want to face. ~ Malidoma Patrice Somé

The times are urgent; let us slow down. ~ Bayo Akomolafe

Silence is not merely the absence of noise; it is the presence of eternity. ~ Terry Theise

The Dis-ease of Speed and Noise

On the other pages of this site, I discuss how our nervous systems are constantly scanning and responding to our environments, using sensory experiences to detect whether a situation is dangerous/threatening, or safe, and to what degree and why. Our embodied minds do this by attending to the qualities of sensory stimulation in the environment. In contemporary industrial, high-tech digital society, our cultural worlds are characterized by excessive speed and noise. Many of us are constantly surrounded by loud, chaotic, violent, surprising, brash, dissonant, inconsistent, and accelerating noises. Our nervous systems experience such sonic stimulation as acutely threatening, in part because such noise pollutes the acoustic environment and prevents our accurate and nuanced experiencing of a situation. In addition, the qualities of mechanistic and fast-paced noise are directly triggering, as such qualities convey a sense of phenomena being out of control and unpredictable. This prompts us to be on high-alert any time we are in such an environment, which for most humans on Earth today is a now daily experience. Unfortunately, in order to survive in such a threatening-triggering-dysregulating environment, many people adapt by numbing or depressing their sensory capacities so as not to be overwhelmed by the excessive hyperstimulation of the contemporary urban environment. While "adaptive" on some level, this numbing of our somatic minds' perceptive abilities simultaneously limits our capacity to fully engage with life and also down-regulates essential functions and processes necessary for health, wellbeing, and deep, sustainable emotional regulation. Thus, our very cultural ecology functions to trigger and sustain us into a state of chronic nervous system dysregulation.

Excessive Stimulation and Excitotoxicity

  • When we spend the majority of our waking (and, often, sleeping) hours in an ecology pervaded by chaotic, dissonant noise and constant, accelerating speed, we will experience this as deeply distressing. Being stimulated into a state of hyperactive sympathetic-dominance can be adaptive and even healthy for brief periods of time in certain conditions, but remaining in this state chronically is quite literally lethal.
  • On the level of neurology, the term for this lethal hyperactivity is excitotoxicity. When a neuron in the brain or nervous system is triggered to fire too fast for too long (e.g., by excessive release of a stimulatory neurotransmitter such as glutamate), the structural and functional coherence of the neural cell will eventually break down and the cell will die. This means that excessive speed and hyperactivity is quite literally a functional toxin, and can be just as destructive to cells, tissues, organisms, cultures, and ecologies as chemical toxins such as alcohol, poisons, synthetic pesticides, etc.
  • Though all our sensory capacities contribute to our assessing and determining whether a situation is safe or dangerous, our attunement to the acoustic elements of the environment is of primary and unique importance. Unlike visual perception, which we can easily and instantly shut-down by simply closing our eyes or wearing eye covers, we cannot turn off our sensitivity to sonic energies (earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones merely decrease this sensitivity, which remains highly alert to signals of threat/danger). When we sleep, it is our hearing that remains active enough to wake us in the event of an approaching danger. Many more examples of the uniqueness of sonic sensitivity could be provided, as I describe in the video below.
  • The upshot of this sensitivity to sound is that in our current cultural milieu, we are almost constantly stimulated into a hyper-aroused state of sympathetic nervous system dominance. When one aspect of our nervous system takes priority (whether the sympathetic [hyperarousal; fight or flight; anxiety] or the dorsal branch of the parasympathetic [hypoarousal; shutdown/immobilization; depression]), our holistic energies manifest a quite literal state of dis-ease. In short, when we feel safe and secure, we are at ease: we are calm, relaxed, feel comfortable being emotionally vulnerable, etc. Our energies flow harmoniously. Conversely, when we feel threatened or in danger, we are dis-eased: we are agitated, hypervigilant, anxious, edgy, and unsettled. Our energies are dissonant, both within our own systems and in relation to the people/systems/organisms/ecologies/energies around us.

Cultural/situational noise and "internal" noise

Besides being directly -- functionally and structurally -- harmful, living at constant, excessive speed and hyperactivity prevents the full engagement and development of our psycho-spiritual-emotional-sociocultural-relational-dialogic capacities and experiencing. There are countless elements to this, but I'll name just a few.

  • Our cultural ecologies (namely and especially urban areas) are pervaded by dissonant, chaotic noise.
  • This prevents our ability to think originally, creatively, and compassionately. As I detail on the "Embodied Cognition" page, the vast majority of our cognition is non-conceptual, qualitative, emotive and somatic. This somatic level of mind is vastly more complex, dynamic, and nuanced than our conceptual-analytic cognition. But to engage such complex, qualitative dynamics of our sensory experiencing, time and silence are essential. As the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says, "Silence is the thinktank of the soul. ...We cannot think truly, originally, and be ourselves, without quiet. And that is the gift of quiet: it allows the faint meanings of sound to gain their original importance."
  • Silence and slowness go together like bread and butter. We cannot possibly engage the qualitatively-rich complexity of our somatic-emotive-affective cognition without slowing down: there is simply too much there to access -- let alone deeply engage with -- when we feel rushed. We cannot truly listen and hear (and, subsequently, respond accurately, constructively, and compassionately to) ourselves, others, and the natural ecologies around us unless we can slow down and feel into the inclusive context of communicative qualities that constitute living systems and processes.
  • The majority of humans now live in densely-populated urban areas pervaded by mechanistic, electronic, and digital noise. This situation has never before occurred in human history; it is highly unnatural.
  • Remaining in a state of hyperactivity for extended periods is exhausting to our systems. Eventually, something will give and we'll either snap and/or shut down. Often, following a prolonged period of hyperactivation, our nervous systems will attempt to protect us from further excitotoxic harm by shifting to the opposite end of the spectrum: excessive immobilization/shut-down ("depression"). Neurophysiologically, this manifests when activity in the dorsal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system becomes dominant. This is a depressive state -- functionally, energetically, phenomenologically -- characterized by low energy, flat affect (i.e. little to no emotional dynamics), lethargy, apathy, lack of interest or motivation, etc.


One might fairly wonder: "It seems like you're saying speed is bad, and slowness is good. But you're also saying that 'too much slowness,' i.e. moving into a shut-down/immobilization state, is also bad. How can this be? Also, moving fast can be fun! Why are you hating on speed?"

Answer: Nowhere do I say "speed is bad." I am very clear in writing that "excessive speed" and "chaotic noise" can be harmful. It is all about the functional-pragmatic-practical effects of any given experience or situation. In taking this approach, I'm aligning with Susan David, Ph.D., the Harvard psychologist who encourages moving away from reductive analyses of the emotional life as either simply "good" or simply "bad." Instead, she invites us to think in terms of "emotional agility," which speaks to our ability to feel a wide range of types and intensities of emotional and aesthetic experience while remaining regulated. Please watch her excellent TED Talk, "The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage," for more details.

Systemic Excitotoxicity: A Culture of Dis-Ease

  • I think it's important to emphasize the sociocultural-systemic-economic levels of our contemporary situation. In the obsolete modern paradigm of life-mind, "psychology" is defined constitutively as something internal to individual subjects and even reduced to the neural activity of brains and nervous systems. Obviously this is a component of cognition, but it is just a component, not an exhaustive-comprehensive explanation of our psycho-spiritual-emotive-relational lives. We are transpersonal-relational-social beings through and through. Long before we have any sense of an ego-individuality, a unique personality, or any other form of distinction from our surroundings, we are hyperaware of -- and conditioned to mold to -- the cues from our social and physical environments. 
  • In the emerging paradigm of life-mind, cognition is a function of systems as such. This means that for humans, cognition is a constitutively social-relational phenomenon and cannot in principle be reduced to the internal "component parts" of our neurophysiology. Rather, cognition is inextricably enmeshed with and emergent from social systems such as families, friend and peer groups, workplaces, political systems, professional associations, schooling, sports teams, etc. So, we can ask: what is the holistic neurophysiological condition of contemporary society? I submit: we live in an extensively, pervasively and chronically dysregulated social mind/body.
  • Our social worlds are often chaotic, hyper-paced, dangerous, uncertain, and unpredictable. The unfortunate reality is that the large majority of people in civilizational culture are chronically depressed and anxious. But this does not mean that the majority of people on Earth are somehow neurophysiologically defective, inferior, or incapable. Depression-anxiety are symptoms of an underlying state of nervous system dysregulation, which is a reflection of the energetic condition of society as a whole. We live in a profoundly dysregulated, dis-eased cultural ecology.
  • The fear, anxiety, depression, cynicism, pessimism, and distrust so sadly common in people today is a reflection of having to live in a social world characterized by economic precarity, literal and figurative violence, political manipulation and corruption, corporate exploitation of workers, social fragmentation, extreme socioeconomic inequality, intergenerational trauma, state-sanctioned police violence, imperialism/colonialism/conquestism/militarism, the total complex of identity "isms" (e.g., racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, etc.), and countless other dynamics that conspire to make life a dangerous daily grind for many people on Earth. Pro-social and supportive relational dynamics such as patience, compassion, empathy, deep listening, constructive dialogue, and the like are not possible when we are dysregulated. And we cannot be ideally -- or even deeply, thoroughly -- regulated when our sociocultural ecologies are so extensively dysregulated. So, rather than being angry at, blaming, or pathologizing individuals for their dysregulation, let's look at what a person has experienced throughout their lives and are currently experiencing. No person is an island, regardless of what any "rugged individualist" cultural ideologies may propagandize. For deep, sustainable regulation, we need supportive communities and cultural environments in which to exist.

Overt and Covert Triggers: Social Discourse

Aside from the more overt forms of threat and danger in our cultural ecologies (like mentioned above), our social discourse is permeated by qualities and characteristics that trigger us into nervous system dysregulation. Here are just two examples:

1) The "Hurry Up!" nature of consumer-marketing-industrial discourse and activity

  • Our media environments, especially marketing and advertising, are full of imperatives telling us we must move faster or we will miss out. Advertisements frequently tell us to "Act now! Act fast! This deal won't last long! For a limited time only! Hurry, don't miss out! You don't want to miss this deal! While supplies last!" etc. This is also a general feature of our economic reality: we are told in countless overt and covert ways that our productivity is never enough: there is always more work, and we must constantly seek ways to do more, and more faster. The faster we do more, the less quality inheres in that work, activity, or product. We can microwave a steak to cook it faster, but a microwaved steak will never have the quality that a properly prepared steak will. A factory machine-produced piece of furniture will never have the character and quality of a piece of furniture hand-built by an expert craftsperson. Time is essential for quality.

2) Fighting/Battle-oriented discourse

  • Contemporary society -- especially in the U.S. -- is permeated by language connoting fighting, battle, attacking-defending, conquest, domination, etc. This is a complex dynamic that I develop in more detail in a blog post. But, in summary form, this contributes to our dysregulation because when we assume such a posture toward others and the world, we are prompted to shift into a nervous state of sympathetic-dominance (which is the "fight or flight" response).
  • Sherri Mitchell discusses this in her book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change. In a section on "Conquest Activism," Mitchell writes:
  • "For more than seventeen centuries, world leaders have been operating under the principles of conquest and genocide that were outlined in the fourth century under the just war theory. Throughout history, these acts have not only been promoted as just and noble, they have been cited by religious leaders as obligations to God. Under these archaic laws and the ideologies that shaped them, we have come to believe that conquest is the natural order of things. We find it in nearly every aspect of our lives. We must conquer our demons, our bodies, and our enemies alike. We have a war on terrorism, a war on drugs, and a war on poverty. We battle depression, anxiety, and our fat. We even battle for peace. This ideology has become so deeply embedded into the public psyche that it is now part of our common language. Even in the work that we are doing to help shift toward a world of peace, we engage the language of conquest by seeking to 'topple,' 'overthrow,' and 'tear down' our opponents. We have been indoctrinated so completely that even to imagine another way of being is viewed as naïve or crazy."

  • Such discourse is so pervasive that it has infected even our efforts at healing and health. We "combat anxiety and depression," "fight stress," and "target illness." The irony here is that distress/anxiety just is a symptom of being in a fighting-battling mode. So, insofar as we fight or combat anxiety, we simply add to it. In some cases, this becomes a self-recursively triggering positive feedback loop -- the basis of a panic attack.

**** stay "tuned".....I'll be adding more here........eventually

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