Information Overload and Neuroscience

Information Overload and Neuroscience

We don’t usually look at computer use from a biological standpoint. But why not? We do consider athletic performance as a matter of optimal cardiovascular function and muscle metabolism, and performance of knowledge work is just as biological, even though it uses the brain, not the muscles. So why not look at optimizing brain function?

Perhaps it’s because the brain is a more mysterious and less accessible organ; but then, modern medical science is changing that. Today we can ask, for example, how does coping with that horrid side effect of computing, information overload, relate to the brain?

Let’s consider some of the facts we do have.

For me the first time I thought about this was when I saw the fMRI data collected a few years ago by Prof. Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University. He was mapping brain activity of a person trying to multitask, by performing two mental activities involving completely separate brain regions (language and spatial rotation processing). When the test subject tried to do both tasks at once – multitask – his brain activity on both tasks dropped a great deal. We info overload experts knew from many experiments that effectiveness drops when one is distracted; here were brain images showing this in action.

There are those – many – who claim that the younger generation, those who can’t spend a moment away from their handhelds and Facebook accounts, CAN multitask. But as I like to point out, you can walk and chew gum, and you can – if you’re young – skip between multiple chat sessions, but when these kids get to be supreme court judges, will they be able to write two learned verdicts at once?


And then came the astounding find of Prof. Clifford Nass at Stanford. Nass was trying to characterize these very kids who supposedly multitask so well – what he called “heavy multitaskers”. He found that when compared to their more ordinary peers, they showed a reduced ability to… multitask effectively! It was as though their constant exposure to multiple digital streams had modified their brains to the point where their attention was permanently damaged… here we aren’t talking about the brain limiting function, but about overuse of a function crippling the brain’s ability to cope, like an athlete irreparably tearing a muscle.

A lot more research is required into these matters, but neuroscience is giving us a glimpse into what our brains would tell us if they could: “chill it, master – too much multitasking is not the way to get me to be productive!

Which should be, well, a no-brainer. If you want to do high quality, effective knowledge work, you should assign time to focused, single-minded work. And to do that, you need to corral the other work – the countless little tasks, the inbox cleaning, the web surfing, in their own dedicated time slots, so they don’t impinge on your quality thinking time.

But then, that is something we didn’t really need an MRI machine for. After all, the Roman writer Publilius Syrus already said it in the 1st century BC: “To do two things at once is to do neither”.

On the email overload side of the IO / Brain connection there’s the fact that email usage patterns are related to mechanisms of addiction – research shows that checking for new incoming mail involves a kick of dopamine in the brain; which is why the habit is so hard to kick. As one academic told me, checking email is like pulling the handle on a “one-armed bandit” slot machine – you keep hoping the next time will bring something new and interesting (and there, too, you normally lose).

And Neuroscience can do more than caution us in this matter: it may one day actually give us some solution paths. There are people out there who are trying to build tools that can sense directly from your brain waves how focused you are, and stop interruptions from breaking your concentration – say, by deferring them or moving them to voice mail and the like – if you are too busy concentrating on what you do…

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.