COULD THE EVENING NEWS BE BAD
FOR YOUR HEALTH?
The Dangers of Information Overload
William J. Lynott
Alvin Toffler sounded the first
early warning more than 30 years ago. In his trailblazing book,
Future Shock (Random House, 1971), Toffler theorized that the
human brain has finite limits on how much information it can
absorb and process. Exceed that limit and the brain becomes overloaded,
thinking and reasoning become dulled, decision-making flawed
and, in some cases, impossible. Even worse, he suggested, information
overload will eventually lead to widespread physical and mental
disturbances. He called this phenomenon "future shock syndrome."
Back then, all this sounded like
a dose of science fiction, but some of today's scientists and
researchers say that Toffler was right. They tell us that information
overload can indeed cause stress build-up and short-circuits
in the central nervous system. That, in turn, can bring on harmful
mental and physical changes.
Internationally known British psychologist,
David Lewis, Ph.D., goes further. He says, "I do think there
are people out there who are dying because they're getting too
much information and they don't know how to handle it."
Americans are being overwhelmed
with information. Each new day introduces an unrelenting flow
of data -- TV news, the Internet, e-mail, voicemail, faxes, cell
phones, pagers, billboards, junk mail, newspapers, magazines,
books, catalogs, nonstop cable news. It never lets up and there's
no place to hide. It assaults us at home, at work, even at play.
By one estimate, a single issue of the New York Times contains
more information than the average 17th-century person would come
across in an entire lifetime.
"Think of the brain as a giant
board with lights," says Dr. Larry D. Rosen, Professor of
Psychology at California State University. "Each light represents
a concept. When a concept is brought to your attention, that
area lights up. With so much information reaching you, many areas
are lit up at once. To handle this, your brain uses a controller
that focuses attention on the most important area. It also keeps
scanning other areas in case they become important. With so much
brain activity, keeping your attention focused becomes very difficult.
"The result is wandering attention,
inability to stick to one task and frustration at the constant
interruptions from new areas being lit up. At night, while you're
asleep, the controller is still sorting out information, often
waking you with ideas buzzing in your head."
Much of this growing information
assault on our senses can be blamed on the astonishingly rapid
growth of technology. Relatively new e-mail has become one of
the biggest contributors to data glut. Writing in USA Today,
author Del Jones says, "In the three seconds it takes to
read this sentence, more than a half-million e-mails will land
in in-boxes. By 2005, nearly that many will land each second.
Obviously, our ability to gather
and deliver information has increased greatly since the 17th
century, but the brain's ability to absorb and process it has
not changed since the days of the cave man, say today's research
"No matter how much we try
to absorb everything that comes at us via the various media channels,
our brains are limited and can only focus on one thing at a time
in depth," says Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., a social psychologist
in Los Angeles. "Much of what we think we're taking in is
dissipated before we're able to digest it -- and it dissipates
our mental energy at the same time."
Still, Americans clamor for more
information. "Not only are we swamped with facts and trivia,
but many of us actually become addicted -- using the term loosely
-- to this high level of cognitive stimulation," says Dr.
"People make the mistake of
confusing information with knowledge," says David Shenk,
author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (HarperEdge,
1997). Shenk writes that information overload fuels stress and
promotes faulty thinking. "The data glut we all slog through
every day at work reduces our attention span and makes us numb
to anything that doesn't lurch out and grab us by the throat."
The workplace, especially, has
become a breeding ground for information overload. A worldwide
survey (Reuters, 1996) found that two thirds of managers suffer
from increased tension and one-third from ill health because
of the huge amounts of information they must cope with. The workplace,
in fact, has become our leading source of stress, according to
the American Institute of Stress.
For many of today's workers, the
day begins with scanning 50 to 100 e-mails, or more. Most are
unwanted spam (junk e-mail). Then it's time to check voice mail
where other messages are probably waiting. After that, attention
turns to regular mail, inter-office memos, and other paper communications.
All of this before productive work can begin. For the rest of
the day, pagers and cell phones clamor for attention, serving
as conduits for a steady flow of still more information.
No wonder that some workers are
complaining that it's simply too much to handle.
As serious as the data glut problem is in the workplace, it isn't
without its humorous side. A 1999 news dispatch from Reuters
tells the story of a Ukraine businessman who bought a pager for
each member of his staff as a New Year's gift. On his way from
the pager store to his office, all 50 of the new pagers went
off at once loudly announcing the arrival of a new message. The
businessman was so startled by the noise that he simply let go
of the steering wheel allowing the car to crash into a lamppost.
After he assessed the damage to
his car, the businessman turned his attention to the message
on the 50 pagers. It read, "Congratulations on a successful
Even home doesn't provide a safe
haven from the information assault. With television serving as
the primary news source for most Americans, the one-eyed monster
force-feeds us a diet of information that exacerbates the problem.
TV moguls have developed a reporting
technique they have appropriately dubbed sound bites. By squeezing
complex subjects into the fewest possible words, with few if
any adjectives or adverbs, evening news anchors are able to pepper
us with an astonishing number of rapid-fire blurbs -- all in
the course of a single 30-minute newscast.
Psychologist Michael S. Broder,
Ph.D., Philadelphia, PA, agrees that television news is part
of the information overload problem. "On a day when there
is little or no news of significance," he says, "producers
take unimportant events and massage them until they sound like
news. Thus, trivial data is marketed as important information,
adding to the information glut."
Another problem is in the manner
in which television packages news events. "The media often
sensationalizes without giving proper information on the probabilities,"
says James P. Buchanan, Ph.D., professor of Psychology at Scranton
University, Scranton, PA. "A good example is child abductions.
The likelihood of a child being abducted, especially by a stranger,
is very low. However, the sensationalizing of these rare events
on news broadcasts has caused many parents to become extremely
worried about this happening to their child. Similar reactions
take place with the announcement of medical 'breakthroughs.'"
In the early days of television,
the weather report consisted of a few sentences read by the news
anchor. Today, in order to hear the forecast for tomorrow's weather,
viewers must first wade through several minutes of animated graphics,
arrows, curlicues, highs, lows, clockwise and counterclockwise
flows, and the dew points in cities on the other side of the
continent. As one comedian observed, "Today's weather persons
have learned how to cram enough useless trivia into three or
four minutes to intimidate the host of Jeopardy."
And don't think you're safe
from information overload when you're tooling down the highway
in the family car. "People are taking their cell phones,
CDs, and computers with them in their cars," says Phil Spelt,
former investigator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's In-Vehicle
Information System (IVIS) Development Center. Adding to this
potential for data glut are the messages that many newer cars
transmit to their drivers. Satellite systems produce maps and
spoken directions, dash gauges flash warning signals and system
analysis while the radio floods the senses with music and news.
In a 1999 study, Spelt, who is
now retired, observed 36 men and women as they "drove"
in an auto simulator while being rapidly bombarded with information
from a cell phone, a collision-warning device, a satellite navigation
system, and a computer screen. The test produced several "crashes"
and one out of six of the drivers missed at least one of the
turns included in the run.
It would seem, then, that no matter
where you are, or what you do, "data smog" lies in
wait, ready to seep its way into your psyche. With nowhere for
us to hide, it's only natural to ask if there a way to shield
ourselves from this unrelenting technological assault.
"There's no way to insulate
yourself completely from information overload," says Dr.
Broder, "but there are steps you can take to minimize its
potentially harmful effects.
"Perhaps the most important first step," he says, "is
to recognize that the potential ill effects of information overload
are very real. The information glut drains your time and your
emotional energy. Worse, perhaps, it dulls your ability to think
Psychologist Susan Battley, Ph.D.,
CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, Stony Brook, NY offers
a similar observation from a slightly different perspective.
"Time is a non-renewable resource," she says. "We
all get 168 hours per week. People need to view time as an asset,
and invest rather than spend it. It's easier to screen out information
"noise" once we recognize it as such. Just because
we have access to all the information in the world doesn't mean
we can process it all."
Our experts agree, then, that the
most important building block for a defense against information
overload is recognition of its existence, plus healthy respect
for the importance of your own time. Here are additional steps
that will help you to fortify your personal defense:
1. At Work
Take control of e-mail. A glance at the subject line is all you
need to identify most unwanted e-mails. Keep your curiosity under
control and hit the delete button.
Close the door on spam. Use a commercial filtering program to
help eliminate spam before it reaches your inbox. Many Internet
service providers now offer spam filters at no extra cost.
Develop an information control strategy for your office. Ask
colleagues to join you in eliminating the exchange of unnecessary
information. Keep paperwork brief and to the point; eliminate
it whenever possible. Don't attempt to analyze every piece of
available data before making a decision.
Keep meetings on track. Make sure that every meeting has a specific
agenda and don't permit the introduction of irrelevant data or
Eliminate duplication. Let everyone know your preferred means
of communication. Has anyone ever e-mailed and faxed you identical
information -- and then phoned to see if you received it?
"Eliminate this problem by
informing your colleagues about your preferred means of contact,"
says Dr. Rosen. "If you don't want a fax unless it is truly
important, say so. If you want to communicate only through telephone
or e-mail, state your preferences clearly."
2. At Home
Limit your TV viewing time. Your television set is the worst
information overload offender in your home. Keeping your TV turned
on for "company" is a sure road to data glut. Even
the news is mostly fluff these days.
Kill junk mail. Drop a note to the Direct Marketing Association,
P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale NY 11735. Include your home address
and all the variations of your name being used by junk mailers.
Ask them to remove you from all the direct mail lists with which
they are associated.
the Internet. It has been said that every piece of information
in existence can be found on the Web. But who needs it. Surfing
the Web for hours at a time just to find random information has
become something of a national addiction. Limit your time on
the Internet to gaining access to information you really need.
Review your subscriptions. Do you really need all those magazines
and newspapers that come into your home? When it's time to renew,
ask yourself if you would miss them.
Allow yourself some "quiet time" every day. Each of
our experts emphasized the importance of self-discipline in the
battle against information overload. Once you recognize the dangers
of data glut, it's up to you to take action to minimize its effects
on you. Setting aside a little time each day completely insulated
from data input is a sure way to strengthen your defense.
If you're like most people, you're
quite capable of shutting out unneeded or unwanted information.
"Humans can do a very good job of what we call selective
attention," says Dr. Buchanan. "For example once people
buy a car they will typically shut out information about the
cars they did not choose. That makes me wonder why have some
people fail to use the information overload safeguards that they
are capable of."
from The Elks Magazine
"If you want to protect yourself
from information overload," says Dr. Susan Perry, "it's
up to you to set up your own filter system. You have to decide
which information is important enough to read, watch, or pay
attention to. Sometimes the best solution is the easiest one:
turn off the TV, turn of the computer, close the book, and allow
yourself the luxury of your own thoughts"
William Van Winkle may have summed
it up best. Writing in Computer Bits Magazine, he observed, "Data
is like food. A good meal is served in reasonably sized portions
from several food groups. It leaves you satisfied but not stuffed.
Likewise with information, we're best served when we can partake
of reasonable, useful portions, exercising discretion in what
data we digest and how often we seek it out."
copyright (c) William J. Lynott
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