As a species, our inclination to advance our learning and understanding of the world is natural. Throughout history we have seen some spectacular innovations that have allowed us to document our discoveries for future generations to build upon. In 105 AD, under the Han Dynasty emperor Ho-Ti, a government official in China named Ts’ai Lun was the first to start a paper-making industry. This along with the invention of the printing press saw the exponential growth of information in millions of bound books filling libraries the world over. In the beginning these books were filled with pain stakingly crafted illustrations until the first partially successful photograph of a camera image was made in approximately 1816 by Nicéphore Niépce, using a very small camera of his own making and a piece of paper coated with silver chloride, which darkened where it was exposed to light. The advancements in photography saw the growth of the stock of images documenting everything you could imagine from around the world in all forms as we witnessed life move from black and white to colour.
From the industrial revolution we have moved to the technological revolution that we see today where new digital innovative tools are allowing anybody to create and document life as they see it. Every day hundreds of millions of people take photos, make videos and send texts. Across the globe businesses collect data on consumer preferences, purchases and trends. Governments regularly collect all sorts of data from census data to incident reports in police departments. Ninety percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. Our current output of data is roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes a day.
The number of live websites presenting content (not those that are just parked domain names which account for 75% of all websites) is well over 250 million. Tumblr boasts 101.7 million blogs producing over 44.6 billion blog posts. WordPress.com has over 63 Million blogs, Livejournal reports to have 62.6 million blogs, Weebly states it has over 12 million blogs and Blogster has over 582,754 blogs. Twitter has over 1 Billion registered users, which spend an average of 170 minutes a month using the service. Add these numbers to those of daily email, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, Youtube, Pinterest, Snapchat, Gify, Spotify etc, and you can begin to see how this information explosion is dominating our lives.
The industrial and tecnological revolutions have greatly increased our ability to gather and deliver information, however our brains continue to absorb and process information in pretty much the same way it always done. Torkel Klingberg, author of The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory, states “the brains in which we are born today are almost identical to those with which Cro-Magnons were born forty-thousand years ago.
Los Angeles based social psychologist, Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., stated that in spite of our best efforts to process this contant flow of daily information, our brains are limited and can only focus on one thing at a time in depth. The best known limitation is the “magical number” that governs short-term memory: the psychologist Miller (1957) has shown that people can only keep some seven items at once in their working memory. Richard Watson, author of Future Minds, explains that increased exposure to technology which helps us consume information online more quickly means that we engage our brains in deeper thinking less often. Not only can technology and information overload damage our brain, it can make us stupider.
Information overload (also known as infobesity or infoxication) is a term used to describe the difficulty of understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue. Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. One of the first social scientists to notice the negative effects of information overload was the sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918), who hypothesized that the overload of sensations in the modern urban world caused city dwellers to become jaded and interfered with their ability to react to new situations. Alvin Toffler sent out a similar warning more than 30 years ago. In his book, Future Shock (Random House, 1971), Toffler presented his theory, named “Future Shock Syndrome,” that the human brain has finite limits on how much information it can absorb and process. If we exceed those limits our brains become overloaded. This means that part of that information will be ignored, forgotten, distorted or otherwise lost.
The longer people are subjected to information overload, the more negative its effects on physical and mental well-being. Sensationalized stories and information saturizing our daily lives is making it harder to tell what’s actually important. This is having an effect on our ability to make sound decisions. Our reliance on devices and internet connections are causing declines in memory and information retention, increased radiation and eye strain, stress and burn out from speed and volume of information received. Our handwriting skills are beginning to diminish over time. There are signs of increased depression and anxiety levels from constant sheltered living and less exposure to sunlight and our attention spans are becoming shorter.
Francis Paul Heylighen, a Belgian cyberneticist investigating the emergence and evolution of intelligent organization highlights in his paper, Complexity and Information Overload in Society: why increasing efficiency leads to decreasing control, that “the problem of information overload can also be formulated as attention scarcity: it is not so much that there is too much information, but too little time and mental energy to process it. The amount of cognitive effort or attention (Kahneman, 1973) that an individual can give to any issue is limited, and there are in general more issues that demand attention than attention that can be given. Therefore, attention is the true bottleneck, the one scarce resource on which all others depend, and thus the one that is intrinsically most valuable. While ephemeralisation can amplify the availability of any other resource, it cannot augment the total amount of human attention.”
So in order to combat this problem we need to slow down the flow of information to amounts that we are able to pay attention to properly or increase our attention capacity. The obvious answer is to switch off and decrease the amounts of information coming towards us. However, companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, that produce the platforms that rely on this increasing flow of information, are dependent on their users staying connected. So they are constantly innovating ways of keeping us engaged, making it that much more difficult for us to break free. We highlighted this in the “Social Media Casino.”
Switching off is obviously not an easy task these days but with a bit of will power and a few small changes your life can change for the better.
- Go on a Break Without Your Phone
Although it is not reasonable to completely live without a smartphone these days, it can nevertheless be very refreshing to take a single weekend away from it once in a while.
- Scheduled Checks
Consant emails, messages and other interruptions can actually prevent you from being productive and getting work done. Instead of checking your email every five minutes or each time a message comes through, instead turn off all notifications (sounds, vibrations etc.) and check it at set points throughout the day (every two hours perhaps).
- Take up non-digital activities
Today, many of our activities involve a screen of some sort; watching movies, playing computer games, texting friends or simply surfing the web. Take a break and simply try taking up some activities that don’t involve a screen. This could include going to the gym, taking long walks, reading a book, sewing, knitting, drawing or playing an instrument.
- No screen time before bedtime
Probably one of the most effective changes you can make is to simply switch off your smartphone, computer or ipad an hour before bed. These screens are known to increase cortisol in your brain and thereby decrease melatonin and make it much harder to sleep.
- Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is all about taking control of your attention and focus. A wealth of new research has shown it to be effective at reducing stress and boosting working memory. It enhances our ability to focus and suppress distracting information. Research also supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity. This is the antithesis to information overload and therefore an excellent option.
There is also another school of thought. Psychologist and behavioural neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the book The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, says we can regain control over our brains by organising information in a way that optimises our brain’s capacity.
- Externalise data
Getting information out of your head and into the external world helps you to see it objectively so you can make better decisions. To do this, write down your list of to-dos manually. This will help to encode the information into your brain through the use of muscle memory.
- Important decisions should be made in the morning.
“Each time you make a decision, it uses some neuro-resources,” says Levitin. The problem is these neuro-resources are used up whether you’re making an insignificant decision or something considerably more important. To avoid neuro depletion, schedule your important decision-making tasks at the beginning of the day in order to maximise your brain’s resources, towards better decision making.
- Get organised
Living in a physical environment that is well organized can lessen the burden on your brain. It can be a simple as having a designated place for commonly misplaced items such as keys, glasses, and cellphones. This reduces some of the pressure on your brain to recall things.
- The myth of multitasking
There has been a lot of debate on the benefits of multitasking and the productivity improvements that come along with it. However, Levitin says multitasking is actually a misnomer because “what we’re actually doing is rapidly shifting our attention from one thing to another. Constantly switching tasks uses up our glucose supply which means the brain will reach a level of fatigue much sooner in the day than if we concentrate on one item at a time with sustained attention.
The amounts of information we produce daily are only going to go up exponentially as we find better and faster ways to produce, transfer and store data. The onus is therefore on each of us to start incorporating some of these practices into our daily lifestyles and at the same time, just try to be a little more conscious and aware of how much time we spend on our smartphones and computers.
By doing so, you may just find you have a little more energy and attention to spend on the non-digital world around you where you can experience it directly rather than through a screen.