It’s arguable that we’ve lived in a visual culture – rather than a culture of the printed word – ever since televisions started to appear in most homes in the 1950s. Just like medieval peasants, most of us consume a large portion of our media visually. OK, they were looking at stained glass windows and we’re watching Breaking Bad, but the point still stands.
In the past few years, though, something has changed. The intensity of our visual culture has been massively amplified by the arrival of the online space, which has on the one hand given us always-on, instant access to a zillion items of visual media, and on the other, handed all of us the ability to publish our own pictures and videos, thereby adding to the never-ending visual tsunami. There are about 250 billion photographs on Facebook right now; that’s about 36 for every human being on Earth.
What effect has this visual onslaught had on us? According to a new study from Brigham Young University in the United States, it could be causing us to enjoy life less. How? By causing “sensory boredom”.
Researchers at Brigham Young had a group of students look at images of food, and then eat that food and rate how appetising it was. They found that looking at pictures of food makes eating that food, or even similar foods, less enjoyable. Are you a foodie? You know all those pictures of food that you spend hours scrolling through on Instagram? They could be causing you to get less pleasure from the food you eat. For an explanation, the researchers point to sensory boredom: in short, repeated exposure to the appearance of the food made the experience of eating it less novel and exciting.
Commentators are pointing out that sensory boredom is a phenomenon with scary implications for those of us who spend much of our lives amid the superabundance of visual stimuli that is online. Are pictures of our friends’ beach holidays making our own beach holidays feel less enjoyable than they should? Are our Pinterest boards stocked full with interior design favourites making us less enthusiastic about our own living rooms? The variations are endless.
Of course, the rise of sensory boredom as an idea – and the current debate over its implications – is telling. It’s a testament to the way the boundaries between online and offline have, for many of us, dissolved, so that much of what we once would have called virtual experience is now simply considered lived experience, equal in importance to the experiences we have offline.
Is this, then, the answer to sensory boredom? Simply to stop worrying about the supposed difference between things we do online and things we really do? After all, if you’re gaining great pleasure from looking at your friend’s endless Instagrammed lunch pictures, perhaps that’s more than enough to compensate for the fact that you’re enjoying your own lunch a little less.
The other answer? Spend a little less time on Instagram and get out of the house. Just don’t take your smartphone with you.
David Mattin is the lead strategist at trendwatching.com
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