Sensory Overload

40coverAn Interview with Ross Rentea, M.D.
Issue: Summer 2005, HEALTH & THE SENSES -  Issue #40

LILIPOH: Let's talk about the life of the senses in our time—do you feel that we are challenged in this area?

Ross Rentea, M.D.: Yes, the life of the senses is definitely stressed in our society. We correctly call it a sensual culture because nearly all activities today depend on sensory input. We use phrases like the “city never sleeps.” It is well-known that in a significant number of households the TV never gets turned off and people commonly complain that there is “too much information” or TMI. A computer mentality, where isolated bits of information are stored and thrown about, is slowly pervading the way people deal with one another. It's no wonder that an institution like Duke University thinks that they are doing their freshman class a favor by giving each one of them their own iPod. Now the students can literally sense the university in their ear all the time. That is true physiological noise pollution.

LILIPOH: Can too many sense inputs make us ill?

RR: Yes I think so. Take for example a recent study that was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine where they looked at the connection between sleep deprivation and obesity. The data indicates that when sleep was significantly lessened there was a 24 percent increase in the hormone that causes hunger and there was an 18 percent decrease in the hormone that suppresses appetite. This is significant for all of us since it turns out that statistically we sleep on the average two hours less nowadays than we used to. This is a clear example of the body not functioning well when sleep, which is the quintessential quiet time, has been reduced. Reduced to a simple formula it would read: more sense input equals more obesity and obesity is an illness.

LILIPOH: Do we not sense, so to speak, that sensory overload makes us sick? Do we just let it happen?

RR: Our bodies spend quite a bit of energy trying to integrate what comes at us. And frequently this expenditure of energy is the cause of persistent fatigue. I can give another straightforward example. A Swedish study looked at children that were raised in what the investigators called a “Rudolf Steiner lifestyle,” meaning a simpler, more natural way of life. They were compared with a group of children given the more usual norms of life. The children that had the most “Steiner points” also had a statistically significant lower level of allergies. Allergies have to be understood here as the body's attempt to throw back out what should not come in in the first place. Some of the findings in this area are quite interesting. For example, in the presence of loud noises, we protect ourselves by scrambling the lower intensity tones. In essence, what results is that conversation becomes less intelligible in the presence of loud music. The same is true with visual impulses. It is pretty well-known that if we stare at a fixed point for a long time, that point will slowly disappear or become less distinctive. We crave pauses between interactions with the outer world. We can seriously harm somebody by preventing blinking. In factories most industrial accidents occur when a repetitive activity has to be accomplished. What we can learn here is that the human organism is craving rhythm. In a healthy way, we want to alternate between sleep and waking cycles, between hunger and fullness, between seeing and not seeing, and so on. In fact, one of the definitions of torture is a relentless persistent sensory exposure.

LILIPOH: Why do you think are we faced with so many situations of sensory overload?

RR: There are multiple reasons. I suppose a simple one is that in a society that relies so heavily on cues form the outer world, maintaining a high sensory input helps with stimulating the purchase of merchandise. Stores have found that a well-lit room with music in the background will increase the buying activity of customers in a significant manner. On the other hand there is a tremendous level of anxiety nowadays, and that can be covered up with constant stimuli that distract us from our own problems. It is intriguing how a sense-filled life becomes senseless.

LILIPOH: Does this set of problems apply to everybody across-the-board?

RR: More or less, yes. Obviously children will be more sensitive, but even in that area there are some quirky aspects to be kept in mind. More than ten years ago, researchers in Germany found that children born after 1980 or so actually had a greater capacity to absorb higher noises without being bothered and that they needed stronger tastes in order to distinguish between foods. So the situation may occur where a youngster of 10 years of age can, visually and emotionally, tolerate a video game to a much higher degree than an adult can. Also, among the youngsters, more and more we are seeing the appearance of a type of children that have been called Indigo or Star children. These children are very bothered by disconnected sense impulses that are not integrated in such a way as to meaningfully point towards something spiritual behind the material world.

LILIPOH: Can we actually perceive anything spiritual in the senses?

RR: Definitely. When we look at a bunch of real flowers, even if we don't know it consciously, in the colors we can sense the sunlight that gave its energy to create that beauty in the first place. In fact, that points to one of the biggest problems nowadays—more and more we are moving into an artificial reality. In one year the food industry spent more than 1.5 billion dollars on artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. These artificial additives fool us into thinking that we are eating one type of food when in fact we are not. A purchased apple pie that needs to be reheated at home may hardly have an apple in it, but since it is flavored with the chemical ethyl-2- methyl butyrate, it will smell of fresh apples wafting through the house.

LILIPOH: How come we don't know when enough is enough?

RR: It really is a mater of training. Think of a small child that has to be put to bed and quieted down because, in spite of being completely exhausted, he will not know how to stop and may actually go until he collapses. In school, children need to learn how to value quiet time and the activity of the thoughts as opposed to merely outer amusement, instruction or command. The problem with not knowing when to switch off is that a lot of the sensory inputs become undigested islands in the soul life.

LILIPOH: Do you mean that literally?

RR: Yes, that is the basis of trauma. An undigested strong sense impression lodges itself into the soul and begins to have a life of its own. Significantly enough, post-traumatic stress syndrome begins to exhibit a rhythmical life of its own to the extent that it will periodically recreate the original event for the person, as if the event were reoccurring for real. In fact, all traditional medicines have recognized that traumas coming at us from the outside, so to speak, can be understood better when categorized by their belonging to one of the four elements: fire, wind, water and earth. Rudolf Steiner points out that specific injuries related to these elements will in turn affect their corresponding internal organs: fire-heart, wind-kidney, water-liver, earth-lung. Of course these are subtle connections, although the ultimate effect is anything but. If, for example, the normal warmth that should be generated in us by movement is interrupted by an excessive dependence on mechanical transportation then the effect will be a dramatic worsening of the functioning of the cardiovascular system. If the person eats in a very hurried way, “rushing along like the wind,” then the kidney/bladder system will suffer. A persistent exposure to sad, unfulfilling images will weaken the liver and physically overburdening work will stress the lungs.

LILIPOH: What can we do to heal ourselves?

RR: I believe that ideas coming from Anthroposophy are very helpful. As you know, Rudolf Steiner distinguishes between 12 senses, not just the five that are related to a very confined bodily experience. We actually have a sense for the ego. Just like we can see colors in the outer world, we can sense thoughts, words and so on. One healing activity that we can engage in is to consciously pay more attention to the seven senses that are balancing the five that we are commonly engaged in. Another extremely helpful activity is to periodically make a conscious effort to immerse ourselves in “true” sensory inputs that are coming from nature and have not been artificially created by man. Lastly, I would like to remind all of us of an original exercise that Rudolf Steiner gives whereby every evening we should review our day in reverse. For example, if, through the day, I went first to work, then grocery shopping, then sat down to relax in the evening—I should now imagine and see myself first sitting down to relax, then doing grocery shopping, then going to work, etc... There is a wonderful digesting activity in this.

LILIPOH: Do anthroposophical doctors also offer medication to treat the senses?

RR: Of course. For example, we give silica or quartz containing remedies because this mineral distributes itself preferentially to the periphery of the organism and thus strengthens all the sense organs. Very interesting work can also be done with finely ground-up and specially prepared materials coming from gemstones. Rudolf Steiner points out that at the same time in human evolution when the sense organs were formed in man, out there, in nature, for every one of these sense organs a different gemstone was crystallized. For example, onyx for the sense of hearing, topaz for the sense of taste, etc... The gemstone peridot (or chrysolith) corresponds to the eyes and thus it is not surprising that we find magnesium in peridot, magnesium being a mineral that can particularly work with sunlight in the same way in which our eyes work with the sunlight. At this new supplement manufacturing company that we have started, True Botanica, we will try to make remedies available based on these gemstone principles.

LILIPOH: Any last comments before we close?

RR: Rudolf Steiner considered the study of the sense organs and of the sensing activity one of the most important but at the same time most difficult subjects that must be tackled. One can find indications on this topic throughout all of his work and I specifically want to mention his book Anthroposophy- a Fragment. It is one of his most difficult to read and should be kept more for the second part of one's studies after one has gained some familiarity with the topic.

LILIPOH: Thank you, Dr. Rentea

Dr. Rentea has a medical practice in Chicago , Illinois. Visit the website of his new supplement company at