Jul 16, 2009

Our poor brains are definitely suffering information overload

Scientists fear that a digital flood of 24-hour rolling news and infotainment is putting our primitive grey matter under such stress that we can no longer think wisely or empathise with others.

Researches suggests that we may have reached an historic point in human evolution, where the digital world we have created has begun to outpace our neurons’ processing abilities.

The concerns have been raised by published studies which indicate that streaming digital news may now run faster than our ability to make moral judgments.

Rapid info-bursts of stabbings, suffering, eco-threat and war are consumed on a “yes-blah” level but don’t make us indignant, compassionate or inspired. It seems that the quicker we know, the less we may care — and the less humane we become.

One fear is that habitual rapid media-browsing can, ironically, block our ability to develop wisdom.

Researchers at the University of California, announced recently that they had compiled compelling evidence that even the universal traits of human wisdom — empathy, compassion, altruism, tolerance and emotional stability — are hard-wired into our brains.

In Archives of General Psychiatry, Professor Dilip Jeste says that neurons associated with those attributes seem to be sited primarily in areas of the prefrontal cortex — the slower-acting, recently evolved regions of our brain that are bypassed when the world feels stressful and our primitive survival instincts grab the controls.

“Constant bombardment by outside high-intensity stimuli is not likely be healthy. It may prevent people from having an opportunity to digest the information, match it with culturally resonant reactions and then execute well-considered behavioural responses.”, Jeste says.

This concern is reflected in research by scientists at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute.

Their brain-scan studies show that, while we pick up signs of other people’s pain and fear in a flash, it can take significantly longer for our minds to develop socially evolved responses such as compassion.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition, used real-life stories to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain, in 13 volunteers.

Brain imaging showed that the volunteers needed six to eight seconds to respond fully to stories of virtue or social pain — far longer than their brains needed to react at an unemotive level.

“The rapidity of attention-requiring information, which hallmarks the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of emotions, with potentially negative consequences,” the research paper cautions.

Our information flood is about to become a dam-burst. In 2006 the world produced 161 exabytes (an exabyte is one billion billion bytes) of digital data, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. That is three million times the information contained in all the books ever written.

By next year, the total is expected to reach 988 exabytes. Personal data-consumption is growing exponentially: while Westerners continue to watch an average of eight hours of television each week, the time that they spend online rose by 24 per cent between 2006 and 2007, according to a study by Compete, the online market researchers.

“Our poor brains are definitely suffering information overload,” says Felix Economakis, a London-based chartered psychologist who specialises in stress.

“Technology is making quantum leaps, bombarding us with new things to focus on, but we have not been able to catch up and adapt. Our brains’ attention levels are finite. When everything is screaming at us, we start withdrawing so that normally nice people become unempathetic.

“The primitive fear centre in the brain, called the amygdala, operates in terms of fight or flight. Information overload makes it feel under threat and it shuts down higher brain regions that deal with empathy. You end up less likely to support others — but because you feel stressed, you want to be supported by the people around you. They are feeling stressed and withdrawn, too. Everyone is demanding support and not giving it. The irony of high-speed modern mass communication is that no one is actually communicating.”

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