TMI: Seven Ways Information Overload Is Messing With Your Brain… and How To Fix It

eggEgg image: ,Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr. (Creative Commons)

We’re showered with information from the minute we open our eyes in the morning until we go to bed at night. And it’s not a gentle, “isn’t that refreshing?” sprinkle; it’s a roaring, relentless Niagara Falls-esque barrage of tweets and text messages and ads and emails and Facebook notifications and Ello invites. This sort of constant, high-volume stream of media and information has consequences for our health, well-being, and social skills… and they’re not all good.

Look, despite most of what I’m about to tell you, it’s worth saying up front that there are obvious positives to social media, technology, and bountiful information — up-to-the-second news, unprecedented networking opportunities, an easy way to keep in touch with friends and family, opportunities to promote our projects, ways to connect with like-minded people, opportunities to be stalked by exes. But let’s take a minute (and only a minute, because, as you’ll see, you’ve probably lost the ability to pay attention for much longer than that) to look at the darker side of limitless information.

It’s shortening your attention span.

“My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and live for the moment.” That ominous vision of our future comes not from our wacky conspiracy theorist neighbor but from an actual neuroscientist: Susan Greenfield of Oxford University. She is, rightly, concerned that the constant stream of information shortens our attention spans, makes us self-centered, and encourages instant gratification.

As we progress from novel reading and letter writing to Facebook status skimming and 140-character Twitter updating, evidence shows that human brains, particularly kids’, are actually rewired. That’s not as frightening as it sounds at first. Our brains are astounding in their flexibility and are continuously making and breaking links, reorganizing themselves, and generally updating to the next version. I have had numerous conversations with teachers about this. They’re frustrated and disappointed as each year, students are less and less willing (or perhaps able) to delve into longer prose. Many schools, they report, have taken to assigning chapters or — gasp! — CliffsNotes rather than the novels older generations read in their lit classes. The children have simply lost the ability to focus on longer pieces.

Leonard Shlain, author of The Alphabet vs. The Goddess, made the point that a rewiring/evolution of the human brain has happened before. As the advent of the digital information age is supposedly rewiring our brains to make us scanners rather than readers, he believes that literacy and the invention of the printing press quashed our ability to effectively pass on long stories and traditions orally. He goes on to describe the massive cultural changes that resulted. It’s a rather fascinating read if you have the time (and attention span) for it. Speaking of which, I’m probably losing you. Look! A kitty battling Godzilla!!

Kitty Godzilla

Image: Gen Kanai on Flickr. (Creative Commons)

Back? Good. Because it’s also making you shallow.

It’s related to the whole attention span thing. Tufts University developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (oh boy, here I go with the whole book thing again), believes that the way that the Internet has trained us to read — or “skim,” to be more accurate — has reduced our capacity to make deeper connections and think critically  about what we’re reading.

In The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr puts it perfectly: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”If you ask them (and I have), plenty of intelligent, creative people will admit that they lack the patience for deeper reading. They are so overwhelmed by the barrage of information that they skim headlines, flip as quickly as possible through their RSS readers, and glance through their Twitter stream but seldom turn off their Jet Ski to scuba dive into a particular topic. Playwright Richard Foreman said we are all becoming “pancake people-spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

It’s making you stupid.

Shiny things

Look! Shiny things! Stick with me.
Image: Ken Douglas on Flickr. (Creative Commons)

So you’re not reading deeply about too many things, but you’re reading a little bit of a lot of things, you’re sucking up information at an unprecedented rate through Facebook, Twitter, eReaders, emails, phone calls, texts, TV, YouTube, etc. etc. etc. etc. How could you possibly be dumber for it? A 2005 University of London study showed that our constant multitasking — what researcher Linda Stone refers to as CPA (continuous partial attention) — zaps about 10 IQ points. That’s about what you lose when you miss a whole night’s sleep, and more than twice what you lose after smoking pot. It’s like a whole world full of potheads. No good. Dr. Glenn Wilson of King’s College London University said, “We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness.”

It’s making you lazy.


Image: Will Lion. (Creative Commons)

I had an obsession with Australia as a kid. I mean, obsession to the point that if I didn’t know better, I’d think I was seriously crazy (for the record, I wasn’t.) I didn’t have money for books, so I’d go to the library and copy information from books and National Geographic magazines, using tracing paper to carefully transfer maps into my little binder. I knew capitals, demographics, history, cultural facts, weather patterns, anything you’d want to know. I still have binders of information on the nation, vigilantly transcribed in my 8-year-old’s penmanship. Would I do that if I were a kid today? Doubtful. At best, I’d probably sit at my dad’s computer and cut and paste some facts into a Word doc. It is, after all, far easier.

But is easier always better? Peter Suderman over at The America Scene cites a very similar example: “As a kid film buff in the early and pre-digital age (early/mid 90s), I studied movie reference books: guides to cult films, to directors, to particular eras and critics. And I didn’t just study them, I soaked up their information. By my mid teens, I could recite actor, director, and writer filmographies, summon obscure facts about little-known cinematographers, and generally dominate in most cinema-related trivia competitions. That was the mark of an (amateur) expert. These days, it seems like I can barely remember who worked on the movie I saw last week. Why? Because I don’t have to. is available from any iPhone or wi-fi hotspot to instantly fulfill my desire for movie-related trivia.”

It’s causing you to be a real jerk sometimes.

A truly fascinating piece in the Times Online cites two recent studies indicating that when we are bombarded day and night with gossip, updates, news, pleas, pitches, ads, and crises, “The result is that our data-numbed brains increasingly say ‘whatever’ to the world’s troubles. The trauma we witness on our screens – and the indignation that it should spark – goes unprocessed as our minds seek refuge in simpler things, such as whether Su-Bo should have won Britain’s Got Talent.” Studies from the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute show that the faster information is thrown at us, the more unlikely we are to empathize appropriately.

Our brains are simply unable to make moral decisions at the same rate we receive information. Compassion takes time.

The study states that heavy social media users could become “indifferent to human suffering.” English psychologist Felix Economakis, who specializes in stress, says, “When everything is screaming at us, we start withdrawing so that normally nice people become unempathetic.” But don’t worry: It’s not your fault. It’s just science. University of California, San Diego, researchers found that traits such as compassion, empathy, and altruism are in your pre-frontal cortex-a slower part of your brain that takes a backseat when you’re in stressful, fight-or-flight situations. Unfortunately, the information overload and associated stress of keeping up in a faster and faster world is making every minute a fight-or-flight situation.

It’s making you annoying to hang out with.


Two girls having a fabulous night out together.
Image: Tantek Çelik on Flickr. (Creative Commons)

I’m gonna come clean here: This is probably my number one pet peeve in life. More than people who don’t use their blinkers, more than noisy eaters, more even than jackasses who bring kids to late-night R-rated horror movies. I’m talking about our tendency to be plugged-in to the point of constant distraction. With the rapid spread of smart phones (about 61 percent of Americans now own one, putting distraction as close as our own pockets), more and more people are “on” 24/7. They’re at the dinner table with you… but they’re not really with you. They nod distractedly while tweeting away, checking and sending texts, documenting the meal with photos to share on Instagram, and responding to emails from their bosses. At the risk of sounding like an old-fogey, when you do this, you are telling the other person that they are not interesting enough to hold your attention, that there is somewhere else you’d rather be, and quite honestly, that you lack social skills. There, I said it. Someone had to.

Besides, it’s for your own good. Dr. Aric Sigman of the Royal Society of Medicine, noted that as people are becoming ” physically and socially disengaged from the people around them because they are wearing earphones, talking, or texting on a mobile telephone, or using a laptop or Blackberry,” they suffer biological implications, reducing the positive psychological and even physical benefits of face-to-face interaction. UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small believes our new methods of communication are permanently altering our brains. “Perhaps not since early man discovered how to use a tool has the human brain been affected so quickly and so dramatically,” he says. “As the brain evolves and shifts its focus towards new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills.”

It’s making you gullible.

I think this might be photoshopped

Tough to tell

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, humanity created 161 exabytes (huh?) of digital data in 2006. Sounds big, but how big is it? It is THREE MILLION TIMES as much information as all the books ever written. In. One. Year. By next year, that number will be 988 exabytes. No wonder you can’t take the time to figure out if everything you read is true or not. If you’re over, say, 30ish, you grew up in a world where a good chunk of what you read was true. Not all, of course — a healthy dose of skepticism has always been a good thing. But there were fact checkers and long-lines of editors at least TRYING to ensure accuracy. It’s tough to adjust to an environment where bloggers and Twitterers are rewarded more for breaking a story early than for writing with accuracy, where phishers, scammers, Wikipedia jokers, hoaxes, urban legends, and Photoshopped pictures lurk around every corner. What good is 988 exabytes of information if half of it is utter rubbish?

Tips for dealing with information overload

You don’t want to be a stupid, lazy, callous, annoying, gullible jerk. Neither do I. So consider these tips.

  • Do one thing at a time. If you’re working, turn your phone off if at all possible. Go back to check it once an hour or so for urgent messages. If you explain that it’s boosting your productivity (and it WILL) and let them know how often and when you’ll be checking your email and messages, even your boss might get on board with this strategy.
  • Figure out when you’re most productive and disconnect from everything so that you can focus on completing urgent tasks. People will get over it.
  • Question everything you read, no matter what the source. Do your own research. Snopes is your friend.
  • Understand that you can’t read or know everything, and that that’s okay.
  • Turn your phone off in social situations. If you’re waiting on an urgent phone call or message, let those you’re socializing with know then politely excuse yourself from the table or situation to take the call. When you get back, give your companions your full attention.
  • Take days off from social media. Understand that the world will not end if you miss a tweet or fail to check every website you read daily.
  • Set time limits for the internet and social media consumption. Looking up to find that you’ve lost hours on Facebook or your favorite news site is a recipe for feeling awful about yourself. Don’t let it happen. Set a timer if it regularly gets away from you.
  • Decide when you are at work and when you are at home. Set boundaries accordingly. Being constantly “on” is emotionally and psychologically damaging, particularly if it’s a long-term situation.

Do you feel overwhelmed by information overload? Do you have techniques for coping that work for you? Share them with us in the comments!