"Cognitive overload"

I am reading a really fascinating article in the Seattle Times about “cognitive overload”, the effect of the information age on our brains.

Here are a few interesting parts.

We’re shooting through technological rapids that have opened doors and changed the dynamic of work, how we communicate and live, and sometimes even think. All these tools have made our lives easier in many ways. But they’re also stirring deep unease. Some are concerned that the need for speed is shrinking our attention spans, prompting our search for answers to take the mile-wide-but-inch-deep route and settling us into a rhythm of constant interruption in which deadlines are relentless and tasks are never quite finished.


This is such a topic of study that it has sprouted a number of terms, from “online compulsive disorder” to “data smog.” Two Harvard professors see evidence of what they call “pseudo-attention deficit disorder” — shorter attention spans influenced by technology and the constant waves of information washing over us. When the brain gets excited over some rapid data and is stimulated, it releases a “dopamine squirt,” they say.

“We have so many options, reward centers that we never had before,” says John Ratey, who teaches at Harvard and is a psychiatrist specializing in attention deficit disorder. “I think that’s why we’re seeing more of this. There are more demands on our attention and less training for us to stop and take it all in. We seem to be amazing ourselves to death.”


John Seely Brown, who was director of the Palo Alto center when [David] Levy[, who is now working to create the Center for Information and the Quality of Life,] worked there, says so much attention has been put into computing firepower that little has been done to factor in human bearings and texture. He says we have been victims of “tunnel design.”

“Suppose you tape two empty toilet-paper rolls and take them over your eyes. Walk around like that, only looking through them for 30 or 40 minutes,” he says. “I guarantee you will collapse into a sniveling heap after a while because everything is a surprise. It’s our peripheral vision that keeps us located and ready for what may come at us.”


The Seattle-based Take Back Your Time organization, through its Web site and book of the same name, says we’re working more than ever and more than workers in any other industrialized country. Many don’t take earned vacations. The bottom line, says John de Graaf, the movement’s national coordinator, is compromises in health, marriages, parenthood, community and social activism. Productivity made possible by technology has inordinately been applied to work and consumption, he says, at the expense of leisure.

“We are not only working faster but even longer, and filling our limited leisure with busy activities, leading to an increasing sense of time poverty,” he says. “We have let the new technologies become a technological leash, leaving us always on call and constantly subject to interruptions and new work requirements.”

Okay, ADD kiddies, now go read the entire article ;>

I am really interested in this field of study. People who are good with piling zillions of things into their days have no time to relax; people like me, who never learned proper time-management skills, feel inferior because of the lack of the ability to do what the multitaskers do. There is so much out there that is available to us that we either are too overwhelmed to do any of it, or we dive in headfirst and lose sight of the forest because of the trees. Either way, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

I was intrigued by the fact that switching quickly from task to task actually decreases productivity. I had never even considered that that might be the case.

I do know that when I am focused on something, and I mean really focused, I get extremely annoyed at being interrupted. (Interestingly, this includes sleeping ;>)

I also know that there are times when I simply refuse to open AIM. I typically leave my email client closed, and let AIM send me a message when I have email. That way, if I want to be able to focus without being disturbed, I can just shut AIM off. No more IMs, and no more emails. It works well.

One problem I do have is dealing with Bloglines…I’ll browse over there out of boredom, and then feel obligated to read everything I see. Focusing like this would be okay if I didn’t keep switching to different windows, I suppose.

At any rate, I’ll be looking at my life from now on and trying to come up with ways to balance the information high and the restive, spiritual needs of my brain.

I hear that the new Trillian creates Wikipedia links to various words in normal chats…this seems a little too multitasky, don’t you think? Also, I’m wondering what David Allen would think of all this. Getting Things Done is all about managing your work and getting it out of your psychic space, but does this free up time for resting, or simply give you more time to do more work?