We are more connected than ever before. The internet has represented the biggest shift in communications since our ancestors first figured out that one grunt can sound different from another. Information technology means that around four exabytes of information will be generated this year – which is more than the previous five thousand years combined. The number of Facebook users is 360 million, and growing. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third-largest in the world, behind China and India. One in eight couples who married in 2008 met online. We have five times as many words in the English language as we did in Shakespeare’s day, and we are now faced with an amount of information in one single day that our great-grandparents would have faced in an entire lifetime.
But our brains haven’t changed in 40,000 years. Can they keep up? The simple answer is yes, they can; at a price. While we are becoming smarter – or at least more informed – our capacity to feel, and to empathise with others, is dropping away.
Processing trauma (like an image of a starving child on our TV) takes time. Around 7 to 9 seconds in fact. We register the pain, or fear, or joy, in an instant but it is the front part of our brain that works on producing an evolved response… Like crying in empathy, or being excited for our friends. When we’re stressed, that part of our brain is considered ‘less important’ and stops being used so much. And stress is caused by information overload.
There have been plenty of warnings about the damage that information overload can cause. When the ‘Mental Bandwidth’ is maxed out, we’re likely to crash. Not true: the part of our mind that suffers from information overload is called working memory – like RAM – and your RAM is upgradeable. Your brain can build more, and make the existing working memory stronger.
The problem is that the frontal cortex, the front part of the brain that controls ‘humane’ responses isn’t so quick to change. We take on way more information than we can respond to emotionally. This means we are numbing ourselves from each other. Ironically, in an environment of information overload, we need the support of other people just when they are too stressed and withdrawn to offer any.
This is when we find ourselves looking for passive ways to stop thinking. Pulp TV programmes, mindless net surfing, all of these are the modern equivalent of fire-gazing: Giving our brains permission to switch off for a while – not to process information, but to process emotion.
Sitting still and staring into space may not help you learn anything, but it may help you care more about your friends and family. The same goes for reducing the amount of information you take in, or at least increasing the breaks between Information Feasts.
Relaxing and taking a break from it all can be as easy as renting apartments in Malaga, the idyllic get-away location.