This post has been resurrected from my old blog's location. I've copied the 2006-03-19 post as-is, and I've added a few addenda at the bottom.
I overstimulate fairly easily. This is a serious social disadvantage.
I don’t know how much there is really to this, but I’m attracted to the notion of the Highly Senstiive Person (HSP). (Also see the links from that Wikipedia article, which is really just a stub.) It doesn’t completely describe me– for instance, I am quite enamored with excessively violent video games, and even many excessively violent movies.
However, in almost every other way, the stuff about the Highly Sensitive Person describes me to a “T”. (Whatever the heck that means.) In particular:
What is most people’s conception of “having a life” is my conception of hell. Going out to a dance club, where there is a press of bodies all around me, flashing lights, and excessively loud, driving, pounding, music, is overstimulation to the level of extreme pain. I avoid these sorts of situations. This is why I never go to the AAS party which is organized partly by a good friend of mine, and which was celebrated by Phil Plait as evidence that astronomers aren’t losers….
I am, in fact, therefore, a loser, by much of the popular definition. Going to those crowded hell-places is what much of the population sees as “having fun” and “having a life,” and many people don’t even realize or comprehend that somebody else might find it as overstimulating and unpleasant.
Living in the dorms in college was painful. There was always somebody blasting his stereo for the world to hear. There were others, like me, who were very annoyed by this, but we were considered “squids” (which meant “nerds” at my college), or losers. I had serious trouble shutting out the incessant bassline and getting to sleep, or even just hearing myself think. I got really sick of asking people to turn down their stereos, and they got really sick of me– they probably could not understand or comprehend just how annoying it was to me.
I hate the boom-boom cars.
I have long had trouble hearing and understanding what people are saying when they talk over background noise. This is not a hearing problem– I have had my hearing tested, and they always tell me that it’s normal or even better than average. It’s a signal processing problem. I frequently have trouble understanding what people are saying at parties or in restaurants, especially if they mumble at all. (Indeed, one time I had my hearing checked, one ear was “better” than the other. Reason? Outside the “sound-proofed” booth I was sitting in, somebody came in and talked with the nurse during the part of the test that tested on ear. The rumbling of the voices– I couldn’t make out words, but there were Penuts Parent “wah wahs”– was distracting enough that I had trouble making out some of the quieter tones of the test. I mentioned this to the nurse afterwards, but she just said that the “sound-proofed” booth was up to spec.)
I cannot use a browser with Flash enabled. (Or with image animations enabled, for that matter.) Too many sites have embedded advertisements which animate their way around me, providing motion at the edge of my computer screen which I simply cannot ignore the way “normal” (non-HSP) people can. If I want to read the news, I have to have image animations and Flash turned off. Alas, Vanderbilt’s science and technology public outreach web magazine “Exploration” has recently converted to an all-Flash format, much to my great dismay.
Even over-cluttered webpages are difficult to cope with. Google has what I consider the socratic ideal of web design. Lots of white space, a few links you need, and the main function right there in front of you. Yahoo, many years ago (I’m talking mid-90’s), had good web design, but now it’s just an overwhelming, cluttered mess (and it’s not as bad as many others!). Why would I want to go there?
When I’m at a professional conference, I don’t get the greatest value out of it. It’s a common assumption that the “real work” of the conferences doesn’t happen in the poster and talk sessions, but at the dinners afterwards, where people make connections and really talk with each other. Well, after a whole day of being in a croweded and overstimulated conference, I can’t deal with going to dinner with a large crowd of people. Yeah, I do it sometimes, but I much rather having dinner with just a couple of other people, preferably ones I’m already comfortable with. I just need to retreat, to give myself some space and peace and quiet. Indeed, I frequently eat lunch or dinner by myself. I don’t know of any recent conference where I didn’t do that at least a few times, and a year ago at the San Diego AAS meeting, I had lunch and dinner by myself every day but one or two (out of a five day conference).
I can’t go through very many days, if any, without time to retreat and be by myself, or just with my wife, reading a good book, away from the stimulation of other people. I’m not an introvert, I’m not shy, and I don’t hate contact with other people or even crowds. (I love giving public taks about astronomy, for example.) But I can’t cope with it without a break.
Clutter really bothers me. Because I am also lazy, I often live in clutter. But I frequently get to the stage where I feel like I cannot do any work in my office if it’s too messy, and I have to clean up my whole desk before I can do anything. (Alas, the decay time before my desk is messy again is less than a day, so anybody who comes by my office will be surprised to hear me say this, for my desk is often quite messy.)
I’m not quite sure what the point of all this is, other than just wanting to get it off of my chest. It came up recently because I got into a rather heated e-mail discussion with the guy who manages the Vanderbilt Exploration site. It was a great site, but now it’s all Flash. This closes the site off to me. I expressed my disappointment, but the response was (a) he didn’t understand just how annoying and impossible the web becomes if I don’t have Flash disabled, and (b) look at how cool the site is now that we use Flash.
No matter how much Flash can do for you, it’s just not worth it. Yeah, if you are presenting an animation, then use it (although I’d prefer an open format like SVG rather than a proprietary format). But if you don’t need it, then, well, I think it’s poor web design to throw out the standards like that.
I should note that sometimes positive characteristics are ascribed to HPSs, but I don’t claim any of them. I don’t believe myself any more empathetic, or any better at detecting lies in other people, than a typical, average person. It’s all downside– I just overstimulate too easily, and that does have consequences. I’m not sure I’d change it if I could, though; it’s just who I am. I like retreating and getting away on occasion, and if that’s there because I overstimulate too easily, oh well.
Notes added 2007-08-17
Obviously some of this is out of date. I'm not at Vanderbilt any more. Vanderbilt's Exploration site now doesn't just show up as a black page if you have Flash disabled, and it does have a (less functional) HTML version of the site. Alas, the HTML archives don't go back far enough to include the article on me. This is the other downside of using Flash for everything; I can't directly link to that article! Flash has it's place, but using it for the basic design of your site is a huge mistake. (Why would they remove the old archives? Why??? People had linked to those articles, and there was interesting stuff in some of them! Even if they wanted to move the whole site to Flash, archives and all, they should have kept the HTML articles at their original URLs! Fortunately, there is the Internet Archive, aka the Wayback Machine.... )
Another important thing to be mentioned is the Flashblock Firefox Add-On. This is an extension to Firefox you can install that blocks all Flash content. However, it leaves a box there, with a "play" icon, so if you want to see it, you can. This is great! Now that there is finally a Linux Flash player that works with Flash 9, I can, for example, watch You Tube movies without having to give in to enabling Flash in my browser. A side benefit of this is that I get to skip an awful lot of gratuitous advertisements.... I use the Web Developer add-on to disable image animations. (It does a whole lot else, but that's about all I usually use it for.)
There are quite a number of people who will understand exactly why I choose this moment to resurrect this post. I'm at a gathering of many of the bloggers from scienceblogs.com right now. It's been a lot of fun; it's great to meet many of these people, and I'm hoping to have more time to talk to them. After a party tonight held by the head of the Seed Media Group, a bunch of people decided to go to a Kareoke bar. I was talked into going along. Now, honestly, in principle, standing in front of people and making a fool of my self hamming it up on a song I only sort of know really does sound like fun. However, to me this looked no different from typical "night life" : pressing crowds, music blaring so loud that I felt like I had to retreat into a psychological shell in order to maintain my self identity.... I lasted about five minutes. I hope nobody will think that this was me being all sad or feeling rejected, and that nobody was insulted. It's just not my scene! I'm looking forward to hanging out with all these people again tomorrow.