Open Road Press

Sensory Overload: Delayed Gratification or Delayed Misery?

Have you ever had memories pop into your mind that you thought were long lost, or that you didn’t even know were there? Debbie and I have experienced this regularly after our recent bicycle tours. Months later, we might remember one of the hundreds of little towns we rode through, or one of the many people we chatted with along the way. It helps to have one another to prod those memories, but I’m often surprised once they do come forth. They often bring a smile and stir pleasant feelings within, serving as delayed gratification.

I have a theory about this phenomenon. When one rides a bicycle for days on end, a cognitive process seizes up. Call it sensory overload, if you’d like, but something in the brain just can’t keep up. Reviewing photos, credit card receipts, blog entries, or even the gear we carried can also prompt these flashes from months gone by. So, my theory is this: the pace of moving the body through its surroundings increases on a bicycle trip, and the brain is not able to process all of the external stimuli as rapidly as you move. Yet, the brain does store sights, sounds, and smells for future retrieval, when the time is right! Whether everyday life has you sitting at a desk, standing in an assembly line, waiting on customers, or walking the halls, a bicycle will move you at a faster pace than your brain expects. Whether you’ve trained it to process at a certain pace or whether it comes that way out of the womb, who knows?

How, what, and when we remember is mysterious and intriguing. An overflow of information is just waiting and wanting to burst forth. But often, it needs a nudge. Isn’t the same true with other information that we store? Like a video surveillance camera at a bank, our brains record whatever we expose ourselves to whether we would like it to or not, and whether it is good for us or not. Upon the appropriate stimulus, a memory is summoned forth, for better or worse. At least for the bicycle tourist, this phenomenon seems to act as a built-in form of delayed gratification, bringing forth pleasant memories for many weeks, months, and years to come.

Did you ever consider that we have the privilege, if not the obligation, to censor what we take in? Because our memory banks indiscriminately record what our senses experience, it is all the more important to watch ourselves. What are you taking in? Do you expose yourself to images that you later regret seeing, or words that haunt you? Or, are you exposing a loved one to similar types of unhealthy “noise”? Just as we might avoid food that later brings heartburn, so too can we prevent unpleasant memories by being selective about what our minds devour. Don’t let your sensory overload lead to delayed misery. Once an image or sound is recorded, it is nearly impossible to forget. Our brains simply don’t have a delete button.

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