At first glance, it’s hard to see how there could ever be too much information. The human brain contains about 80 billion neurons, interconnected by some 100 trillion synapses. Measured in terms computing power (a fool’s errand — but that’s a topic for another day) the brain is up there with those famous chess-master-beating, Jeopardy-winning monsters and the larger, lesser known powerhouses that are silently reinventing our world.
With so much processing capacity, how could we ever be threatened by too much information? If a supercomputer can gobble up the entire contents of Wikipedia, why can’t I?
Simple answer: the human brain, unlike the largest or smallest computer, is embodied. Its first job is not to calculate the odds of an asteroid hitting Earth or the likely trajectory of the bond market. Its first job is to make sure your heart beats on time and your oxygen levels are stable and that you can navigate a complex environment to survive and reproduce. That’s a tall order! It only leaves a relatively small capacity for what we think of as “thinking.”
Pity Your Working Memory
There’s a critical function of the brain called the working memory. It’s badly named, because it’s required to do more than remember stuff. The working memory is more like a scratchpad where you grab recent data, analyze it and make conscious decisions. This is where “thinking” in the everyday sense actually happens, and the neuronal resources available for it are relatively small.
Why does this matter? Because your working memory can easily be overwhelmed. You can flood it with too many demands. Multitasking (actually rapid task-switching) is one common way to do that. What happens then is not just overload. In fact, this is where the computer analogy completely breaks down.
Computers don’t have emotions. You do. If you over-stress your working memory, you’ll become anxious. That puts you into a negative feedback loop, because dealing with anxiety consumes working memory, which further reduces its ability to handle incoming data.
So what’s the solution? If we’re alert, we develop tactics to avoid being fire-hosed by information: rationing our news exposure, answering emails once a day, dodging meetings… But many other ruses are unconscious and less than constructive. For example, we select a random slice of the incoming data for attention, or we simply devalue the ideas we’re offered (“I already know that” works a treat). We do whatever it takes to hold back the rising tide of information.
George Lowenstein—one of the originators of behavioral economics—identifies many common tactics in a great paper, Information Avoidance, that I’ll be discussing in a future blog post. For now, the title alone says a lot.
Hiding in the Bubble
Limiting our data exposure is necessary, but if that’s our only defense it puts us in danger. We might block out essential information. In fact, you’ll see this happening all the time. “I don’t want to know” becomes an unconscious reflex, and it leads to a kind of dumbness. We lose interest in context. We fail to consider other people’s perspectives. We become historically ignorant. We shrink our possibilities. We start inhabiting information bubbles.
There’s a lot of concern (rightly) about the growth of echo-chambers, and this is commonly blamed on social media. Another cause may be the downpour of new information on our exhausted, under-resourced working memories.
There has to be a better way to meet this challenge. We need strategies and tools to comfortably manage large quantities of information. We should be able to observe a large mass of mental material, even if it’s quite disorganized, without panicking or closing our minds. There are ways to do this, but they’re not well known and they do require a little skill.
One such solution is what I’ve called reverse mind-mapping. Here’s how it works. In conventional mind-mapping, you take one simple idea and branch out to generate more and more detail. With reverse mind-mapping you go the opposite direction. You start with a mass of disorganized stuff, and reduce it to a few key ideas, and eventually one idea.
Nature’s Own Data Compression
What makes this possible is a natural function of the brain, in fact one of its most fundamental abilities: categorization. Human beings have a natural tendency to shrink information by grouping it in mental buckets. That’s how we get to have language. There are, of course, a lot of words in the English language: but far less than there are things in the universe! The word “flower” captures an uncountable number of tiny data points that are blossoming all around the world. That’s categorization.
With reverse mind-mapping, you start out with a mass of detail and quickly categorize it. In other words, you organize it under headings. That allows you to work with just a handful of concepts — but each concept is implicitly loaded with quantities of data, so you don’t lose anything important.
Make Your Brain Happy
Because of how the brain functions, reverse mind-mapping has a double benefit. It not only reduces the load on your working memory, but it also softens the anxiety provoked by TMI — which in turn releases more capacity in the working memory. Of course there are other ways to manage information overload, but reverse mind-mapping is certainly one option you should keep in your toolkit.