Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sensory overload

With some exceptions, my view of the world is very flat. I perceive pretty much everything in my field of view with equal weight, nothing stands out except what I’m specifically focusing on at that moment.

This caused me no end of problems as a child, and no end of frustration for my parents. Asked to fetch something, I’d be frantically hunting for it, unable to see it even right in front of me. As an adult, I’ve learned to laugh this off as “can’t see for looking” but as a child it made me feel stupid.

The best way I can describe it is constantly playing a game of “Where’s Waldo”, or one of those “hidden object” puzzles. What you’re looking for is in plain view, but overwhelmed in a sea of similar but irrelevant distractions. The only way I can find and latch onto something is to scan my visual field systematically until I find what I’m looking for.

That is my view of the world, every minute of every day.

This shows up in everyday life in ways such as:

Finding the right product on supermarket shelves - and don’t get me started on the twin evils of supermarkets regularly moving things around, or manufacturers’ insistence on producing a dozen variations on a product in almost identical packaging. Why must shampoo, conditioner, and body wash all look identical?

Making sense of many websites, trying to track down the button or menu item I want from the smorgasbord of icons on display.

Trying to find the turnoff I need amongst the roadside background clutter of signs and driveways.

Even something as simple as breakfast can become a nightmare. Last week I traveled to a business workshop. With no direct flights it’s a long way from Victoria to Ottawa - about 10 hours of traveling. The first morning, I was still a bit woozy and looking for simple sustenance to set me up for the day.

First off, I had to ask at reception where they were serving breakfast because the bar where I’d eaten the previous evening was empty. I felt stupid when I realized my eyes had glossed over the head-high three-foot-wide sign alongside reception saying “Breakfast this way”. I get the same problem with headings on many websites too - you’d think bigger is more obvious, but unless my eye happens to take it in all at once it’s more likely to go unrecognized.

Then there was Ordeal by Buffet.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fabulous buffet, and very visually appealing. But simply too much to take in.

I’m a tea drinker so the server brought me a pot of hot water and advised that I would find the tea over by the buffet. Searching, searching, searching ... it took me a good five minutes to recognize the row of shining steel pots for what they were - containers of loose tea to make your own tea bags.

Once I’d got my food, it was time for Hunt the Spoon. The table was laid with knife and fork, but I had a helping of yoghurt and no spoon. Back to the buffet. When looking for something (as my childhood experiences showed) everyday items simply don’t leap out from the background. I had to start at one corner of the room and work my way around the tables scanning every item on them looking for something recognizably spoon-like. It was a big room, so it took me a while, feeling increasingly foolish, thinking “it surely can’t be this hard?”

This may sound exaggerated, but it’s not. And it’s fairly typical of my experience in any unfamiliar place.

With familiarity, I’m happy to say that breakfast the following day was far less traumatic. And the food was truly delicious :)

How do you either portray (as a writer) or understand (as a reader) a sensory experience very different from your own?


  1. That would be challenging. Not stupid though. It would only be stupid if you were wandering the buffet looking for a spoon when you had one in your hand already.

  2. Oh Ian - how difficult ... yet how interesting: you've certainly explained to us how challenging this 'dilemma' is for you in daily life.

    Your art work doesn't reflect this - but in blogging we can get come across information we wouldn't expect to find -unless we knew we were looking for it ...

    Thanks for sharing this with us ... very interesting to know about - and am glad you enjoyed your breakfast the next day - cheers Hilary

  3. Gosh I can't imagine how that must feel. Someone else I know can't remember faces, ever. Strange how brains work, isn't it?

    I honestly haven't really thought to incorporate into my writing, mostly because I'm a highly visual writer, so details stand out to me, and I'd be at a loss if I had to write without them.

  4. I often have difficulty finding things right in front of me. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Alex, with advancing age that is a distinct possibility!

    Hilary, you might not see it in finished art, but you probably would in the painting process. I focus on one area at a time.

    Misha, I didn't mention faces here, but I can't remember faces either, until they become very familiar to me.

    Stephen, glad to know it's not just me :)

  6. I haven't encountered this issue before. It might be an interesting challenge to write a character who experiences this. Though, I'd imagine its quite frustrating in every day life, as you describe it well here.

  7. Fun times. I think my 11 year old is in the same boat. Personally, I love it when I read about a character who does have a difficulty like this, but it's rare to actually find a handicap like this in literature. I've written a couple characters with their own hangups, but they tend to be the exception. While you struggle with the visual end of things, I struggle with the audio end of things. Over stimulus. Too much music or noise kills me--which is strange when you consider I'm a vocal performer AND composer/arranger. There's too much music already in my head to endure what is going on around me too. =) I wish I had a list of NORMAL hang ups like yours and mine, and beyond, to assist with character building.

  8. Jean, it has its frustrations, but for me it is simply normality.

    Crystal, the weird thing is I'm primarily a visual artist. Maybe our inner world of our respective senses (sound and vision) is a haven from the over-stimulation outside?


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