December 19, 2014

If, by 9:30 in the morning, you already feel overwhelmed from opening emails, scheduling appointments, catching up on the news, and listening to the latest edition of Serial, you aren't alone.

Experts estimate we now take in about five times as much information as we did in 1986; we're exposed to 34 gigabytes of information every day — just in our leisure time. And we weren't necessarily built for this.

"For tens of thousands of years of evolutionary history, the world didn't change that much and there weren't that many decisions to make," says Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. "Our brains didn't evolve to have to make so many decisions in such a short amount of time. And they certainly didn't evolve to deal with the kind of novelty that we experience every time we experience a new Twitter feed or Facebook update."

Levitin, also a neuroscientist at McGill University and Dean of Arts and Humanities at Minerva, became interested in the problem when he saw it in his own life. "No matter what I do, I can't keep my email inbox empty. I started to look at the research, and I discovered I'm not the only one who's having this problem."

Having a lot of information thrown at you every day also means making more decisions; and there's something neurological going on whenever you make a decision. Making too many in one day can cause something called "decision fatigue."

"Neurons require glucose in order to function," Levitin explains.

Every time you make a decision — even a trivial one like, 'shall I get the Honey Nut Cheerios or the Multigrain Cheerios?' — even a little one like that uses up a little bit of glucose. Biologically, the brain doesn't distinguish between these trivial decisions and the really momentous ones. After an hour or two of making all these little decisions, if you feel tired and depleted, it's because you've literally depleted chemicals in your brain.


Are humans doing a good enough job adapting to this new environment?

It isn't quite evolution, explains Levitin — that process moves much more slowly. But there is a clear difference in brains of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants." "People who are under 30 are used to a constantly-evolving landscape," Levitin says. "People who are digital immigrants and who are faced with new technology or new routines that they're not familiar with, they activate the amygdala. This is the fear center of the brain; the so-called 'fight or flight' response kicks in."

That activation also helps raise levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. "As your cortisol levels increase, it clouds your judgment to the point that you don't even know your judgment has been clouded." And, Levitin adds, people have a similar reaction to multitasking.

Of course, the world isn't slowing down anytime soon. But Levitin offers up even more evidence that the solution isn't always to shoehorn more information — or decisions — into a day.

I think in this over-caffeinated age, we all feel like we have to be working constantly and if we take five minutes off, we'll fall irretrievably behind. But the research now bears out that if you take breaks of just 15 minutes every couple of hours and allow your mind to wander, it's tremendously restorative for your working brain.

Body and Mind, technology, information overload, Daniel J. Levitin

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