Understimulation and humanity

by Debbie Quackenbush, Ph.D.

Several years ago, I started noticing that zoo animals had seemingly random objects in their enclosures.  I recall asking a zoo employee about them and was informed that even animals get bored and have ill effects from under stimulation.  Putting toys and novel objects in their cages was a way to prevent them from becoming depressed.  Of course, it makes perfect sense, on reflection, that an animal in ten square meters of space would become bored seeing the same four walls every single day of their life.

I have been thinking about the effects of under stimulation on humans during the COVID crisis.  Naturally, many of us seriously lacking in social and environmental stimulation.  We get less social input.  I suspect that we have less of other kinds of input, as well.  I could also imagine that, stuck in our homes, we are also exposed to fewer colors, smells, sounds, and textures.   Sitting in front of a laptop does not provide much in the way of stimulating the senses.  Sure, content can come into one’s brain via one’s computer.  Sure, one can feel socially supported by talking to another person online, but are there effects of prolonged sensory under stimulation?

I looked to research to see if anything had been conducted regarding this topic.  As it turns out, there is far more research on over stimulation.  It is addressed regarding children, autism (Hazen, Stornelli, O’Rourke, Koesterer, & McDougle, 2014), ADHD, and in people suffering from work-related stress.  There is far less research on its antithesis, and most has been conducted in a couple of different populations:  1) children of neglect, and 2) people with ADHD. 

Many people come to me and they confess to me that they have not contracted COVID and that they still have their job.  But there is a listlessness, a sense of things being flat and uninspiring that they feel they cannot shake and that they may even blame themselves for.  I propose that many of these folks are suffering from under stimulation and that, like those zoo animals in their cages, have a chronic, dull low mood.

The unique and troubling human tragedy brought on by the COVID pandemic has and will likely continue to inspire academics in multiple disciplines to perform research.  I propose that in addition to studying sensory overload, researchers endeavor to investigate sensory UNDER stimulation.  There is a unique quality of apathy that I am seeing in people today which I think it partly explained by this factor.   Please, everyone, as we just ‘wait to start living’ exercise self-compassion and remember the animals in the zoo.