Dr. Sanjay Gupta Interviews Neuroscientist and Psychologist Daniel Levitin About How to Think Straight and Stay Focused On the Important Stuff In the Age of Information Overload

Information overload can lead to "decision fatigue." Some famous figures have chosen to wear similar clothes each day to reduce the decisions they have to make. Steve Jobs famously favored a black turtleneck, jeans and sneakers.
Information overload can lead to “decision fatigue.” Some famous figures have chosen to wear similar clothes each day to reduce the decisions they have to make. Steve Jobs famously favored a black turtleneck, jeans and sneakers.

Here’s a figure to boggle the mind: we consume about 74 gigabytes — nine DVDs worth — of data every day. It’s amazing we’re able to process and make sense of it all. So how do you think straight in the age of information overload?

“Information overload refers to the notion that we’re trying to take in more than the brain can handle,” says neuroscientist and psychologist Daniel Levitin.

“We used to think that you could pay attention to five to nine things at a time,” he added. “We now know that’s not true. That’s a crazy overestimate. The conscious mind can attend to about three things at once. Trying to juggle any more than that, and you’re going to lose some brainpower.”

Information overload also leads to something called “decision fatigue.” It’s why Albert Einstein is nearly always pictured wearing a gray suit, why Steve Jobs usually wore a black turtleneck and why Mark Zuckerberg is almost always sporting his signature gray T-shirt. They didn’t want to waste valuable energy making inconsequential decisions about their clothes.

To find out more, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta spoke to Levitin, who is professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, and the author of “The Organized Mind.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: What does it mean to have information overload? How do we know if we’re overloaded?

Daniel Levitin: If you’re making a bunch of little decisions, like do I read this email now or later? Do I file it? Do I forward it? Do I have to get more information? Do I put it in the Spam folder? That’s a handful of decisions right there, and you haven’t done anything meaningful.

It puts us into a brain state of decision fatigue. Turns out, the neurons that are doing the business of helping us make decisions, they’re living cells with metabolism, they require glucose to function, and they don’t distinguish between making important decisions and unimportant ones. It takes up almost as much energy and nutrients to process trivial decisions or important ones.

As more information comes in, do our brains change or adapt to be able to absorb more information?

One thing that’s interesting is when you look at stress. We get stressed out now by having somebody yell at us in the office, or by making a mistake, or by losing a bunch of money. These aren’t problems that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had.

They’d get stressed if a lion came to them, or a boulder was rolling towards their living quarters. That kind of stress provoked the fight or flight response.

Cortisol would release adrenalin to get you ready to do something. Cortisol has the effect of shutting down a bunch of unnecessary systems when you’re fighting or fleeing. It shuts down the reproductive system. You lose your libido. You don’t need that if you’re not going to live long enough.

Nowadays, when offices or regular social interactions create that stress, there isn’t any place for it to go. We don’t fight it off. We don’t usually flee it off. It builds up and creates these toxic effects in our bodies that among other things cause us to be fuzzy headed.

A lot of the information overload is self-imposed. We seek out this information. It’s readily available, but we still have some control — don’t we?

We do but there is a dopamine addiction loop that sets in. Getting back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, in those days it was an adaptive behavior to seek out novel experiences and novel things, “Oh! A new stand of fruit trees.” “Oh! A new well.” It was important to recognize these things and those early humans who did had a better chance of survival.

That system can be hijacked by a lot of bright shiny things like the internet, like email, like Twitter, Vine, Tumbler, Instagram. Each new piece of information that comes in gives you a little squirt of dopamine. After a while you want the additional stimulation.

We’re exploiting the system in a way that it wasn’t intended to operate. I think it stresses us out and it also keeps us away from immersion in the things that are really most important to us.

Paying attention obviously means being able to recognize first of all what is important and what is not. Is that one of the big challenges with information overload?

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SOURCE: CNN – Susie East and Ben Tinker, Will Worley