People assume they’re born with a fixed level of sensitivity, which I define as sensory awareness. But the strength of our senses adjusts in response to our environment. This is important because great creatives are great noticers, and it’s hard to be a great noticer when your awareness goes numb.
I notice my sensitivity change whenever I return to a city after some time in nature. Before leaving, I barely notice all the concrete or the ambient cacophony of cars around me. But once I return, I experience a circuit overload — as if my nervous system is surrounded by trees while my body’s cast in concrete.
The body demands homeostasis, and after some time in the city, my mind and body become less sensitive as a protection mechanism. I automatically (and unconsciously) respond to the overstimulation by numbing my senses. Though it’s an effective way to survive in raucous environments, it leads to a dull and disembodied internal life. When you’re numb, it’s hard to make the kinds of observations that generate quality writing.
Loud sounds squash my sensitivity more than anything else. Aesthetically, so much of the ugliness of modern cities is downstream of noise pollution. When considering the costs of cars, people fail to account for how loud they are. Cities are riddled with noise — screeching subways, the bangs of construction, and gas-guzzlers without mufflers.
I also wonder how much the declining popularity of classical music and the subsequent rise in EDM and hip-hop is downstream of urban noise. The sounds of popular music are indeed characterized by louder noises and less dynamic range.
Sensitivity makes you more externally perceptive, but also more internally self-aware. For proof, look no further than the reports from meditation retreats. It only takes a few days for people to notice the emotions they’d previously been ignoring. After a few more days, they can identify the stories behind those emotions and even pinpoint the exact coordinates where those emotions live in the body. The sisters of silence and reflection reveal how much the noise of modern life downs out subtle perceptions and the whispering vibrations all around us.
The sensitivity of our senses ebbs and flows based on who we’re with and where we are. If you’re looking to be more perceptive, start by changing your environment.