sensory overload

All posts tagged sensory overload

I recently got Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones.

I had previously tried passive earplugs and headphones that claimed 30 dB noise reduction, and got little value out of them.

The noise cancelling headphones suppress a good deal more train (BART) noise, enough that I’m now able to read nonfiction while on the train.

It won’t help with the situations where noise bothers me most (multiple conversations nearby) because it mainly eliminates predictable noises. It makes speech sound more distant without affecting the speech volume a lot. But reducing the cost of train and plane travel is valuable enough that I feel foolish about not having tried them earlier.

I have always been somewhat sensitive to noisy environments, and over the past few years his has seemed like an increasing obstacle to my social life (possibly because I’ve become more ambitious rather than more sensitive).

A few months ago I tried Auditory Integration Training (AIT), which consists of listening to music CDs with strange noises added. I don’t understand it very well, but part of what it does is train my brain to equalize the sensitivity in each ear at a particular frequency.

About halfway through the program I noticed a clear improvement in my ability to handle noise levels in a typical restaurant or subway. That improvement has persisted for several months. I think I was previously using a lot of mental energy to filter out background noise, especially when trying to hold a conversation.

AIT is expensive and has a somewhat poor reputation. My impression is that it is only appropriate for a small number of people who suffer from auditory overload. But I felt the auditory overload was enough of a problem for me to be worth trying what might well be a placebo (and I can’t be confident that it was more than a placebo, but placebos are sometimes better than nothing). I suspect that whatever scientific tests that have been done on AIT looked at symptoms that are only loosely related to auditory overload. And it wouldn’t be easy to design good measures of the auditory overload that it seems to help with.

I recommend AIT to people who have unusual sensitivity to noise levels that most people can handle, but I also recommend skepticism about the broader claims that have been made about AIT.

Update on 2014-02-14: my sensitivity to noise has fluctuated a good deal since then without any clear improvement, and it’s quite possible that the improvement I felt while using AIT was an ordinary change unrelated to AIT.

Book review: Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World by Sharon Heller.

This book has lots of information about sensory overload and sensory integration problems, but left me confused about the extent to which I have the problems that the book describes and whether there are good solutions.

The book mostly focuses on problems of being overwhelmed by sensory input, but also says sensory numbness can be associated with the same kind of problems. Some of the symptoms discussed describe me rather well, but a majority do not. The book seems to suggest that almost any nonstandard reaction to stimuli might mean a person is sensory defensive, which makes me wonder whether many unrelated conditions have been lumped into one category.

Many reviewers seem pleased that the book tells them they’re not alone in the problems that they’re facing. But I kept having conflicting impressions about whether the people described in the book are like me.

The book lists many possible solutions to sensory problems, which are described as making up a “sensory diet” – more suggestions than the author could plausibly understand well enough to know whether they work. Many are supported by anecdotal evidence, some by evidence that appears to be moderately good science, and for some the evidence seems inconclusive. I believe that they are better than random guesses, but I don’t expect to get much out of them without a good deal of trial and error.

Auditory integration training sounds like the kind of help I’m looking for, and the book makes that and some similar programs sound promising. But the Wikipedia entry on AIT is rather discouraging, and the Wikipedia entry on Sensory integration therapy isn’t very encouraging.

The book reports some interesting claims about the benefits of natural full-spectrum light, such as a large decrease in cavities (see “The effects of lights of different spectra on caries incidence in the golden hamster” by I. M. Sharon, R. P. Feller, S. W. Burney). But how much of this becomes unimportant when we take vitamin D supplements?

I just tried a full-spectrum light (OttLite 15ED12R 15w) recommended by the book. It provides more illumination with 15 watts than the 20 watt fluorescent bulb I normally use, and it was immediately obvious that the book I was reading looked better because it was whiter. But it has a distracting hum. Shouldn’t a book like this be able to warn me of this drawback?

There isn’t a lot out there on the subject of sensory integration, and educated guesses are better than nothing.