“Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” – Psalm 119:37
We have spent the last several weeks considering the importance of the psychological and emotional needs Identity, Stimulation, and Security. In this post, I’d like to discuss the consequences of the misplaced or unmoderated need for stimulation.
Is stimulation bad?
Let’s address this up front: stimulation is vital. Babies need visual and auditory stimuli to develop normally. And sociologist Robert Ardrey who enumerated these needs maintained that we need stimulation throughout our lives to be emotionally healthy. We need to encounter new ideas, new people, new locations, new songs, new works of art to feel and be truly alive. If you’re creative at all, you know that it’s nearly impossible to create out of a sense of boredom.
But let’s also agree that stimulation, like many other beneficial things, is subject to misuse. We can seek sensation and experiences as a substitute for a healthy sense of identity and or security. We can use cheap imitations of genuine accomplishments to avoid potential pain or loss. We all have our favorite mindless entertainments, and we use them to get a quick hit when we’re procrastinating. I can find no shortage of articles to read when I should be writing, for example. But why do we do this?
Paging Dr. Zimbardo
In his TED Talk titled The Demise of Guys, Dr. Philip Zimbardo explains that westerners, men in particular, have essentially re-wired their brains through consumption of visual media. He says that excessive screen time — particularly web surfing, porn and video games — has created what he calls arousal addiction. This type of addiction creates a powerful craving for novelty — that is, for more and different stimulation. He contrasts this with drug addictions, where the desire is for increased quantities of the same substance.
Your brain on stimulation
So what happens when our brains are stimulated in this way? The arousal response results in production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s powerful stuff. Dopamine lights up the brain’s pleasure/reward center and it is part of the neurochemical mechanism of motivation. When you’re producing dopamine you are receiving a naturally occurring positive reinforcement that will cause you to repeat the behavior that created the reward. If you’re generating product or creating something positive, this can be an engine of prosperity. But what if you’re reinforcing the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake?
When a man exposes his brain to excessive stimulation — via junk food, gambling, porn, or video games — dopamine production increases radically. The producers of this stuff know it. In the same way water flowing downhill creates a gouge, then a gully, excessive dopamine creates its own pleasure pathway — a landing pad that demands more traffic. As Zimbardo explains, the desire is for greater variety, not just more of the same. The recipe for loneliness then is: Indulge, rewire your brain, and isolate yourself.
Nothing new under the sun
Man’s tendency to seek too much of a good thing didn’t start with the advent of the internet, any more than his tendency toward violence began with the invention of machine guns. However, the ability to create large-scale impacts in a very short period of time is a product of technological progress. Men have always been fascinated by sex, but the anonymity of the internet has provided access to far more images far more frequently. Zimbardo claims the average man views 50 pornographic video clips per week. If so, the effects of arousal addiction are likely to be more widespread and more profound
But let’s go back to the root of all this: we need stimulation, and we are biochemically wired to reward ourselves for it. The feeling of accomplishment when you achieve a goal, complete a project, take a trophy buck, or ask that cute girl for her number — that’s all proper and a result of dopamine doing its job. This is natural and beneficial in its proper place and proportion.
I submit to you that the problem is seeking that dopamine rush without doing the difficult work that leads to legitimate rewards. Each of us has a mission, and we need to be at our respective posts. Faithfulness brings a good reward. Shirking your duty to chase shiny objects leads to all kinds of calamity. Let’s look at an example from ancient history.
Oh look — a squirrel
In chapter 11 of 2 Samuel, there’s a famous story of a king seeking stimulation in the wrong places. It goes like this:
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab was doing and how the people were doing and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. And David invited him, and he ate in his presence and drank, so that he made him drunk. And in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die.” And as Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant men. And the men of the city came out and fought with Joab, and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite also died. Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting. And he instructed the messenger, “When you have finished telling all the news about the fighting to the king, then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, ‘Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? Who killed Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? Did not a woman cast an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?’ then you shall say, ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.’”
So the messenger went and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell. The messenger said to David, “The men gained an advantage over us and came out against us in the field, but we drove them back to the entrance of the gate. Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall. Some of the king’s servants are dead, and your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.” David said to the messenger, “Thus shall you say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter displease you, for the sword devours now one and now another. Strengthen your attack against the city and overthrow it.’ And encourage him.”
When the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she lamented over her husband. And when the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”
Go to school on David, or learn your own painful lessons
It almost looks like the plot of a Hollywood thriller, doesn’t it? Voyeurism, lust, adultery, conspiracy, murder, corruption, and a cover-up. None of it necessary.
Notice first that King David was at home when he should have been on the battlefield with his army. Maybe he had been too successful too soon, or maybe he had gotten bored with winning. No matter the he was casting about on his roof, spying on his neighbor’s wife as she bathed. Maybe she was bored, too, and wanted the excitement of an affair with the powerful king next door. Perhaps. But if he had been faithful to his mission, his men, and his God, he wouldn’t have been there in the first place.
There’s more to the story, and I urge you to read on in 2 Samuel. You can start here. But I want to encourage you — and me — to get solid on your identity and your purpose, and avoid the cheap buzz that fake stimulation creates.
Be a producer, not a consumer
If you are in the grip of one of the fake stimuli, I challenge you to quit being a consumer and to begin to produce, to create. You know your gifts, spend your time seeking the rewards of genuine accomplishment by making something that others can enjoy or from which they can benefit. Create sculptures, paint pictures, plant gardens, paint houses, tell stories, write songs, stage plays, serve others. And learn to enjoy the satisfaction of real rewards.