A very nice essay from Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic gives the back-story of the current salt glut in our diet. Fundamentally, we find that we’re more prone to consumer saltier foods, even when we’re not hungry. But salt, as Shulevitz writes is only one-third of the ”unholy troika of ‘hedonic’ ingredients” along with fat and sugar. She recaps research from former FDA commissioner David Kessler’s book The End of Overeating that reveals horror movie-style industrial food laboratories bent on creating “hyperpalatable foods.” The “supernormal stimuli” contained in something like a Swanson Hungry-Man XXL carved turkey meal has the power, to “alter the landscape of the brain,” partly by releasing a flood of dopamine.
In addition to its intrinsic merits, the story caught my eye because, as I’ve been arguing on this blog and in my book, we face an analogous situation in the world of sound today. The noise we hear moving from loud restaurants to cacophonous stores to jangling streets–and inward to the safety of our own private MP3-player noise bubbles is fatty, sugary, salty sound–hyperpalatable sound that makes us crave more of the same, even when our bodies and brains are already glutted with noise. We need to think about analyzing our daily sound intake and doing whatever we can to develop a more sane acoustical diet. There are many commercial and infrastructural forces aligned against this aspiration, however.
To the best of my knowledge, (and please correct me if I’m wrong on this point) there has at this point been very little research done on the relationship between dopamine release and acoustical noise. However, there are two intriguing exceptions: studies looking at the effect of white noise on the memory performance of children with ADHD issues, and studies looking at the impact of noise on MDMA (ecstasy) toxicity. In the former case, the key finding relates to the fact that ADD/ADHD syndromes are associated with low dopamine levels and the addition of acoustical noise can (up to a point and depending on the type of noise) raise these levels to where attentional capacity is enhanced. This effect may be tied in with stochastic resonance whereby a band of moderate noise entering an already disordered cognitive system resonates with the signal of purposeful brain activity, amplifying that relative to the competing din. In the case of ecstasy, findings indicate that the neurochemical and behavioral responses to MDMA are heightened by the addition of noise — and dopamine release is one of the most prominent of these effects.
My suspicion is that we’re going to find that even without bringing ADD/ADHD or ecstasy into the equation, noise has the capacity to release dopamine in everyone’s brain. And the implications of such a finding would be enormous. For one thing, it might help to explain our clandestine addiction to noise.
It would also illuminate the particular ecology of noise we’re caught in. All the ways that we’re distracted, over-stimulated, under-reflective and desperately “reactive” to every novel stimuli that comes our way because of the environmental noise surfeit has the most acute impact on young people. How could our children today not
“inherit” attention deficit disorder from the noise-dominated social contract of our agte? How could we possibly expect them to learn the values of activities like reading, daydreaming and quiet contemplation when every direction they turn they see a world that adults drowned in hyperpalatable sound? Rope-a-dopamine a-go-go. Collective ecstasy; individual oblivion. The beat goes on.