Here’s a (very) short history of information explosion: oral poetry; carved tablets; papyrus; illuminated manuscripts; printing press; radio; television; computer; iPhone; iPad. At each turn, the volume and quality of available information grew, first geometrically, then exponentially. Availability has now far exceeded the capacity, and some say the need, of the human brain to receive, decode, and make use of the data. Volume has also created an additional stressor that was unknown until the latter part of the 20th century: information overload.
Today more than ever, we are exposed to a far larger volume of sensory input than our senses and brain can process. Billions of individual bits of information compete for our attention, requiring us to rapidly determine which needs to be processed, remembered, or used for action. Information can be just data (it’s now 7:15pm) but it can also carry an emotional value (it’s later than I thought!). Emotion-laden stimuli have a special advantage in the competition for our limited attention resources because the correct evaluation of an emotional stimulus may be critical in determining whether it represents a threat (oh no, I’ll miss the start of the game!) or a reward (good, I wont’ have to sit through the previews). See this post on the value of emotion as information.
In spite of the enormous amount of valuable and potentially interesting information that can be ours just for the asking (or the thumbing), more than 99% will not be accessed, processed or remembered. The greater part of the remaining 1% that makes it to our eyes and ears will be discarded by the brain as irrelevant and unimportant. So we are left with an almost insignificant sliver of information that manages to be retained and used in some way. Pity, one might say. Thank goodness, says I.
Information overload causes compensatory behaviors that are typified by the multitasking frenzy that seems to have taken hold of otherwise perfectly rational human beings. Multiple screens, multiple apps, multiple devices, uninterrupted internet access, always-on software, background-running programs… So many chances for interruption and diversion are causing our attention to be drawn only to an occasional object in one’s field of vision, and the perpetual noise of our surroundings is usually relegated to the subconscious.
So, when important information arrives it may get at least temporarily lost, instead of being immediately channeled into the proper integrative and motor regions of the brain that cause desired responses. Knowing that this can happen, and fearing the dreaded curse of the 21st century of “missing something important” is what’s behind the multi-tasking, the screens, and all the redundant channels of information that we feel we must keep open at all times, at the office, at home, in the car, at the beach, anywhere.
Our Overworked Attention System
The thalamus plays an important role in the maintenance and regulation of alertness and attention, and is part of the ascending reticular activating system (ARAS). The cingulate gyrus also seems to have a significant role in attention, which is an aspect of behavior with connections to the prefrontal cortex.
Adrenergic neurons in the brain, also known as catecholaminergic neurons, play the major role in the transmission of information. The transmitters in these neurons are all excitatory hormones, such as the catecholamines dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and epinephrine (adrenaline). These adrenergic neurons are part of the central nervous system’s regulation of attention, mood, movement, and reward. No wonder information is important to us! Every time a new bit arrives, especially if it has any emotional value attached to it, there is a little dopamine squirt that hits the brain pleasure-reward center.
Information can become addictive, just like any other stimulant of the same areas of the human brain. For many of us, the addiction is already past the abuse stage and is in the dependence stage, when tolerance (needing more and more information just to feel connected) and withdrawal symptoms (panic when information is shut off) have become apparent.