Is there a word which describes the experience of not being able to comprehend new sensory input?

Specifically, I am trying to find a word which describes my experience whenever I listen to a new Chopin piece: though generally highly harmonic and melodic, his pieces are often so complex that I cannot discern their harmony or melody at first, they sound disorganized. But after a few listenings, they comes into focus and I can see that contrary to being disorganized, their organization is so complex that I am unable to comprehend them at first.

For those who are not musically inclined, I think a similar experience would be that of a blind person who receives sight but is disoriented at first / not able to comprehend the new sensory input person who has never seen or even heard of the ocean coming to it for the first time: I image they would not know how to process what they were seeing for some time.

  • Maybe some combination of 'overwhelmed' and another word? Sorry, I can't think of a single word that specifically covers sensory overloading.
    – mattacular
    Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 17:46
  • How about "numbness"?
    – jub0bs
    Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 22:13
  • I would simply say "confusion".
    – MetaEd
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 5:32
  • Sensory bewilderment?
    – Ste
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 6:51
  • Also, sensory overload is a term I've heard a few times.
    – Ste
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 8:56

4 Answers 4


I would call that "sensory overload"

From Dictionary.com:

Part of Speech: n
Definition: "a condition of receiving too much information or stimulation via visual or audio sources; overstimulation of one or more senses"
Example: In sensory overload, it becomes difficult to focus on the task at hand.
Etymology: 1959

  • I think my second example of a blind person receiving sight was misleading... that probably would result in a "sensory overload" experience. But the concept I am trying to describe has less to do with the sensory response and more to do with the cognitive perception of the sensory input. Perhaps "cognitive overload" is on the right track, but I still feel that "overload" is not the right concept here. It's more about the lack of comprehension. e.g. when someone speaks to me in a foreign language I don't know, I am not overloaded, I just can't comprehend. Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 19:14
  • 1
    @StephenSwensen, it's hard to imagine a word for your purpose that is not "overload" because to anyone else hearing the piece, even for the first time, they are likely to just hear a homogeneous blend of sounds that are harmonious and pleasing. The opposite of that would be "cacophony", which I'm sure is not what you mean. Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 19:40

I think you should not mean "new" sensory input.

You should call it "inertial" sensory response.

Let's say you listen to a piece. It takes you an hour to dissect the various simultaneous patterns he employs. And then another hour to understand the interactions between those patterns. You listen to it for two weeks and happily believe you have comprehended the piece.

Then six months later, after listening to some jarring Johann Strauss which (akin to modern day rap and roll) skews your whole perspective, you sit down to listen to the same piece - it's all gone. Then you have to spend another three hours hoping to recomprehend what you had six months ago. Then it comes back, but it's no longer new, because the 2nd time you would recall what you had perceived the 1st time around, and then you would be able to sit on the keyboard to make further discoveries.

Even though the 2nd or 3rd time is different from the 1st due to being able to recall, they are all still due to sensory inertia - the need to rearrange or restructure our perception to perceive the patterns of the piece.

The same experience should not be different from the perception of a mathematical or software solution. Trying to recall what you did six months ago vs trying understand what you need to do with a new problem.

It's not about being disorganized - but the inertia of a previous sensory structure needed to be moved out like the inertia of a heavy 18-wheeler to allow you bring your Rolls-Royce into the driveway.

  • I think you have very accurately captured the concept I was trying to convey... so then is there a word or phrase that captures it? Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 19:07

In answer to your first question: yes. While Blessed Geek and Kristina Lopez are certainly on the right track, I approach your question from a slightly different perspective, and the word I put forward is unfamiliarity, and the phrase unaccustomed to.

Because the affective or emotional aspect of music is part and parcel of the experience of listening to music, particularly music that is new to us, our unfamiliarity with it engenders various reactions in various people. I remember being "turned off" when I first listened to the music of Mahler. After repeated listening, however, my attitude changed and I began to enjoy his music, particularly his first symphony.

Another person who has no desire to be exposed to classical music--my daughter, for example, may allow prejudice to keep "that kind" of music completely out of her life. Music is, after all, a matter of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum. What we initially hate we may eventually love, though not necessarily.

A child who hates asparagus may grow to like it later in life. Another kid avoids asparagus her entire life. Why is that? Perhaps the former kid is more open to experience asparagus, and the latter is not. My daughter may never acquire the taste for classical music. From my perspective, her life may as a result of her lack of openness to classical music be stunted in some way. At this point in her life, however, she couldn't care less; her mind is made up.

If we are open to it, sometimes a piece of music simply "grows" on us through repeated exposure. That is what you experienced in listening to Chopin. What was at first unfamiliar in Chopin's music became familiar to you; what you were once unaccustomed to you become accustomed to. It's a process. Our initial dislike may turn into affection or at the very least a certain grudging respect and admiration.

O course, music is but one aspect of human experience to which we can be drawn inexorably. One person may devote his entire life to discovering at the micro level the intricacies and complexities of single-cell organisms or at the nano level, quarks, while another person may take a macro approach and study the universe write large, black holes and all.

All disciplines, music included, challenge us with their learning curves, and tantalize us with yet-to-be-discovered facts and facets. Curiosity drives some people into uncharted territory, while other folks play it safe and refuse to learn, to grow, to evolve. Similarly, some people dabble in many things; others plunge headlong into just one or two; still others become Renaissance men and women, who through nature and nurture become polymaths.

Sensory overload is an apt expression for your initial experience of the work by Chopin. We experience sensory overload, in part at least, because we are unfamiliar/unaccustomed to something new. Granted, the words familiar/unfamiliar and accustomed/unaccustomed may not be what you are looking for, but I think they capture the essence of your question, if only partially.


Temporary threshold shift (TTS) is sometimes used to describe temporary hearing loss. For your Chopin example, might something like cognitive threshold shift work? If the complexity of the Chopin piece temporarily zeros your brain's cognitive functions on first listen, then it will take some time to recover or "reboot" those abilities, just as it takes time to regain hearing after TTS.

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