“All the misfortunes of men arise from one thing only, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own room,” wrote Blaise Pascal. The French philosopher could well have added to the end of his quote the words: “without consuming information”. Pascal was referring to our aversion to being alone with our thoughts. He writes: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”
Already, by the 17th century, intellectuals were wary of the volume of information circulating in society, most notably due to the proliferation of books. French philosopher René Descartes was one such critic, writing: “Even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live in this life and more effort to select the useful things than to find them oneself.”
Today, the information explosion knows no bounds. “In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986 – the equivalent of 174 newspapers,” writes Daniel Levitin in The Organised Mind. “During our leisure time,” he continues, “not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes, or 100,000 words every day.”
One reason why information has exploded in the last 500 years is that humans keep seeking more and more of it. Information is a bowl of sweets that we can’t resist.
However the problem, according to scientists, is that information is like candy for the brain. A study at Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley shows that information triggers the brain’s reward centre just like junk food, on par with money and drugs. When we’re feverishly scanning our news feed for a particularly good or bad news story, it’s as though we’re prising open the ice cream container and diving in. In the study, associate professor Ming Hsu discovered that the brain converts curiosity about information into the same common code it uses for money and other concrete rewards.
Today, we can tailor our search according to whatever piques our curiosity the most – musicians, sports stars, finance, or global politics. Whatever it is that we’re really curious about, we can search, follow, like, pin, and consume more of it. We enter what’s termed the ‘curiosity state’, and when interesting facts roll in, we get rewarded with a flood of dopamine to the brain.
The trouble for the human brain is that we have limited processing capabilities. To understand one person speaking to us, writes Levitin, we need to process 60 bits of information per second. For us to understand two people talking at the same time requires 120 bits per second, which puts us at the upper end of our processing capacity. We can only properly focus on one thing at a time, which explains why we often get frustrated when someone speaks to us, for example, while we are writing an email or following our GPS in the car. “Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with,” adds Levitin.
When we continue to allocate more of our attentional resources to consuming information, we don’t have much left at our disposal for much else.