Information Overload Could Consume Us Like a Hungry T-Rex — Here’s What to Do About It

Joe Duncan

The physiology of information overload, information anxiety, and why we should unplug for a time.
An array of booksPatrick Tomasso

Anyone who remembers the 1993 hit movie Jurassic Park remembers the famous scene where they’re on the run from a tyrannizing Tyrannosaurus Rex. The lumbering dinosaur is waltzing around, tossing cars about with his nose, and stomping heavily and loudly, shaking the environment with each thunderous pound of his gigantic feet. He’s hunting. He’s hunting for human prey.

The human stars of the film are dashing about and hiding under whatever objects they can find, namely overturned cars. And that’s when Dr. Alan Grant, played by actor Sam Neil, instructs the terrified children what to do. He decides to employ a little bit of science and says, “Don’t move. He can’t see you if you don’t move.”

From here, everyone freezes, doing the best they can to stop the compulsory shivering of fear, taming the adrenaline that’s coursing through their veins. If they can avoid moving, they can avoid becoming dinner.

Since I feel like I don’t need to drop any spoiler alerts for a film that came out in 1993, I’ll assume you already know what happens next. The T-Rex can’t see them and, after a moment of puzzlement, eventually wanders off.

They’re safe. Crisis averted.

While paleontologists used to believe that a T-Rex couldn’t see anything that didn’t move, a hypothesis that’s since been disproven (sorry to ruin your childhood!), they took the idea from animals alive today that can’t see things that don’t move. And this little bit of information can tell us an incredible amount about ourselves.

Toads and Humans

Anyone who’s ever watched a toad eating knows that toads, too, can’t see things that don’t move. They’ll sit there and stare at their prey and wait for it to move before they strike, unleashing the deadly flick of their tongues that swoops up the unsuspecting creature and turns it into lunch. Toads are blind when nothing in their field of vision is moving.

Their brains shut down. They stop processing information. They save the overhead and turn the vision processing of the brain off. This is how they discern prey, like a worm, from small sticks of wood that wouldn’t be too tasty.

And while this might seem like a weird quirk of just dinosaurs and toads, something that doesn’t in any way apply to us humans, I can assure you, it’s not. This applies not only to the way we humans perceive but the way we think as well.

You see, humans are just like toads in some ways. Or, if you prefer to think of yourself more like a T-Rex, feel free, but if you think the T-Rex is especially fierce, I’ll add that toads can eat up to 1,000 bugs per day, making them one of the most unexpectedly vicious predators on the planet.

This process has helped them survive in an unforgiving world for millions of years because it pays to be excellent at resource management.

Computational Brain Power

What most of us scarcely consider is the fact that processing information requires brain resources. The brain is the most resource-heavy organ of the human body, accounting for 20% of our body’s energy expenditure.

In order to use less energy, toads discard things that aren’t novel and different. They see change only and turn themselves off to the things that remain still. And humans do this too.

How many people out there do you think have bought a piece of art, hung it on the wall, and never thought twice about it since then? Once it wasn’t new, their brains shut off to it. And we, too, can’t see things that don’t move in our peripheral vision, just like the toad.

Shannon Information Theory tells us that our brains are tremendously efficient at weeding out information by its novelty and predictability.

Information, in a word, is data input that’s unpredictable. It’s what “moves” in our field of vision. And I don’t mean we prefer animated GIFs over stationary ones, I mean our brains seek out information that’s important and potentially threatening.

Our brains give priority to things that “move”, and they do so to not use too many resources and to avoid information overload. But today, everything in our information environments “moves” all the time.

Information Overload

The importance of all of this is two-fold. In the information age, a time when we’re bombarded with people trying to vie for our attention, it’s painfully easy to overwhelm our cognitive abilities. Anyone else have six messaging apps? Yeah, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Distractions cost the economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity. Distracted driving costs $40 billion per year and kills thousands of people annually.

And this means a lot in your personal life, too.

And a scary study by Microsoft that used smartphones to judge attention spans showed that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to only 8 seconds today. While this research has been disputed, I’ll let you be the judge for your own life. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, my friends…

Companies intentionally draft long contracts to obscure the pitfalls within them inside of a wall of text that the brain will eventually deem too redundant to perceive. Like the toad who tunes out the stationary dirt and the trees, our brains tune out pointless jargon. This is a process called information overload, when we, like the toads who go functionally blind when their environments stop bringing forth novel information in the form of movement, stop taking any information in.

In a piece titled Information Overload: Memory and Focus Are at Risk, Dr. Kenneth Freundlich of Morris Psychological Group tells us:

“We are wired to remember and use the information our eyes and ears receive. But our working memory — the mental workspace that retains information long enough for us to manipulate it or use it — can hold fewer than ten items at a time. Being constantly bombarded with far more information than we can process works to the detriment of our memory, our concentration and ultimately our ability to produce timely results and make good decisions.”

As NeuroscienceNews said, “information is like snacks, money, and drugs to your brain.” It’s what Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu of Berkeley University calls, “idle curiosity,” when the brain begins binging on unimportant, unuseful information like we devour a bag of chips that have no nutritional value.

And stop and think about all of those phone notifications that are constantly pulling your attention away from your work or socializing. We’ve all been to lunch with a few rude people in our lives who didn’t put their devices down the entire time.

Cary Stothart et al at Florida State University conducted a study into the price of distractions from a single phone notification, stating the following about the results:

“Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task.”

Information Anxiety

Information anxiety is also a thing, you know? It happens when we feel a deep sense of dread from the overwhelm of information and our inability to process it all. This happens because we evolved to scan our environments for threats.

Just like a toad sees movement and instantaneously understands that it’s either a life-ending threat or a delicious breakfast, our brains are scanning information all the time to weed out the things that might harm us.

And what we’ve done to ourselves is create a constant stream of information that we have to judge for potential threats, like putting a toad in a tank with robotic objects that move all the time. Eventually, the toad would be overwhelmed, constantly trying to escape what it fears are predators lurking.

It’s no wonder conspiracy theories are so prevalent, with at least 50% of Americans believing at least one conspiracy theory since 9/11. Conspiracy theories thrive on uncertainty as they promise easy explanations to complex threats. Imagine a toad trapped in a tank with battery-operated toys that it perceives as constant threats, moving all the time. It would be akin to animal abuse. And to us, this is the information sphere we’ve created. And conspiracy theories are a way of consolidating the walls of information into a predictable package. They form a convenient, even if incorrect narrative, so we can feel like we’re assessing the threats around us. Like the toad, it’s what we were designed to do.

It’s also no wonder mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are on the rise. We’re swimming not only in a sea of information but also a sea of disinformation. And it takes a lot of work to weed out what’s what and who’s who.

Not to mention, we’re training ourselves to believe that there are potential threats in the form of information seeping into every dark corner of our lives.

Stepping Away From the Information Space

We tend to not think of information as anything but neutral and we certainly don’t think of it like a ferocious T-Rex hungry to devour us from the outside in. But in many cases, it actually is. And we can tame the digital beast.

Like in twelve-step programs, the first step is admitting that information overload is a problem in our lives. But fortunately, we aren’t exactly powerless over our consumption.

Personally, I’ve turned off my notifications selectively. I don’t need Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat notifications. And YouTube? Never will I receive a notification about a video that I need to see right now or else I’ll fail at something for as long as I live.

Tailoring your app notifications is the first step in reducing the cognitive load that interrupts your life (and causes you anxiety).

Only those entities who are necessary for the functioning of my daily life get through the gatekeeping measures I’ve adopted. I’m like a secretary who takes his or her job seriously batting down telemarketers in a game of whack-a-mole.

If I want or need different information, I’ll seek it out on my own.

Considering social media is a huge culprit in the world of information overload, I’ve even adopted third-party apps that allow me to post without even so much as leaving a digital footprint on the cyberspace platform.

And, what do you know, my mental health is a lot better, my focus is a lot clearer, and my work pace has picked up astronomically. I used to get sucked into conversations and distractions for hours. And it even took a few hours to make sure I tailored my media stream in such a way as to stop the bombardment. But it was worth every second of it.

And if I can do it, you can do it too. In fact, your mental health might depend on it.

In doing the research for this story, I stumbled upon a handy Forbes article titled How to Stop Information Overload in its Tracks, with handy tips for curating your own information stream and lessening the load on your mind.

I also recommend the book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf for a better understanding of the physiology of information processing. It can be found on Amazon here.

The real truth is, we don’t need to be plugged in twenty-four-seven. We can and should take the time we need for our friends, our families, and to get out into nature. We should unplug from the overwhelm that’s consuming us as a society. Hopefully, this story will give you the tools you need to understand information overload and consider if you’re suffering from it.

Repeat the motto: Press mute. Unplug. Disrupt the stream.

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