Is Information Making Us Stupid?

Our lives are awash with information: in the palm of my hand, I have simultaneous access to the lifestyle of the Korowai Tribe of Guinea, the interest rate on a 13-week Treasury Bill, expert advice on canine dental care, Kant’s entire critique of pure reason, and my wife’s current location. Does that make me smarter? Or might it make me dumber?

The human brain has a component known as the working memory. It’s not a single piece of tissue, more a cluster of functions that enable us to temporarily store and use information. “Working memory” is something of a misnomer, because memory is just part of this system: it’s really the conscious, executive aspect of the brain we think of as “thinking.”  Relative to the brain’s massive computing power, the working memory is quite small. And because it’s small, it easily gets overwhelmed. We all know what that feels like, and today we have a name for it: TMI, or too much information.

What happens when we succumb to TMI? The one-word answer is: anxiety. Let’s call this “information anxiety” and see where it leads.

As the Body, so the Brain

Notice what happens to your body when you get anxious about anything — your taxes, your health, the economy, the time of day, whatever. There’s a slight but unmistakable contraction of the musculature, most obvious in the chest and the stomach, but if you’re alert you can find it in the fingers, the toes, the eyes — everywhere. Of course, contracted muscles are less usable than relaxed muscles. Your range of motion gets restricted. You reduce your capacity for free and spontaneous action.

Here’s a hypothesis you can test yourself. In the face of information anxiety, your mind suffers the same fate as your musculature. It contracts. You lose mental mobility. Your thinking becomes less free and spontaneous. Your effective intelligence goes down. That’s how information threatens to make us dumber.

So what does that imply? Surrounded by a rising tide of information, we need new tools to help us navigate it — not just digital tools, but mental tools. Only with new thinking techniques can we come to peace with TMI and retain our mental freedom in the presence of massive data.

Now you’ve got the mission of the Braincat project. More to come!

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