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November 3, 2014 at 7:45 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

The Digital Info Tidal Wave: 3 Vital Strategies for Staying Sharp and Keeping Your Head Above Water

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Many patients come to me with complaints about being forgetful. Sure, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are a reality, but mostly I conclude that people are just overwhelmed.

I have this theory about our minds.

To me, minds are like a plate in our hands as we stand at a huge buffet. For the most part, everyone has the same size plate. Most of us, assuming we're hungry, fill the plate. We may strategize about how to organize the plate and what to put where, but in reality, there is a finite capacity on the plate. We may stack and pile and then try to put that last cherry tomato on the top only to watch it roll off the plate and onto the ground.

That cherry tomato is our short term memory, things like,  "Where are my car keys?" or "What is the name of that person?" 

These days, if you're like me, you have a tidal wave of information spilling over you - emails, texts, Facebook, paperwork, iTunes, television and the day-to-day executive functions of life.

Can we sustain this pace?  Are we heading for a system crash?  Let's examine how our minds must adapt to the onslaught of information we face today, and discuss strategies for survival in this new technological age.

Cultural Evolution

The further back you go in history, the simpler things seem. The hunter-gatherers had but a few concerns, mostly centering around finding food and shelter. As society progressed things became a bit more complex, but still seem simple by our standards. Occupations were simply occupations and did not involve the volume of information at the pace we see today. A story which we condense into an hour-long media program might be spread out over several days.  Music repertoire might consist of a few hymns, a far cry from an endless playlist on the iPod.  And when a person of this age was gone, they were out of reach with communication - a textless reality. 

Very quickly, we've evolved to a "Right here. Right now." age.

We can find entertainment anywhere, and anytime. Movies are pulled up on a portable device, and so is music. The options are endless and readily available with next to no effort. Further, anyone can contact us anywhere, and at anytime. Email is delivered in the blink of an eye and can be pulled up and accessed just as quickly. We are being bombarded from the moment we wake up. Removing this stream of information would require a conscious effort to escape, trading convenience, constant stimulation, and efficiency, for purposeful peace and relaxation of the mind.

Of course, it must be remembered that advancements have always brought scrutiny and condemnation.

In ancient Greece, Seneca condemned a written language, arguing that it would lead to a weakening of the mind through "spoon feeding" information and spreading lies that could not be discerned as with speaking directly to a person. In the middle ages, engaging in any media other than of a religious matter was considered heresy. And in the 1950's it was felt that rock-n-roll music playing out of record players, juke boxes and the radio was going to corrupt the youth of that generation. 

I think it's fair to say that with these advancements, people adapted, thrived and were generally "o.k."   However, whether concerns over the advancements of today are just another "the world is going to hell in a handbasket" sentiment or these particular changes are different, and are harmful, requires some digging to answer.

Multitasking, Megatasking, and The Mind

Neurologically speaking, our brains are really not capable of performing many things at once.  There is a que that develops with tasks performed in rapid succession. Like a large circuit board when pushed to the limit with volume and speed, inefficiency develops and overload occurs. 

Reducing demand produces better results.

This has recently played out in the texting while driving plague. Attention to texting draws attention from driving and then back to driving. Tragedy occurs when attention is required during the texting diversion.  Adding insult to injury? According to neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin and expert in this field, we are actually less productive when we multitask. The illusion that we are engaged and accomplishing a lot, is not actually the case. Studies show that efficiency is decreased during increasing degrees of multitasking. Furthermore, the stress of multitasking leads to an increased release in the stress hormone cortisol which dulls sensation and cognition.

Overcome Information Overload

1. Practice Unitasking

The most important aspect of unitasking is avoiding distractions. Distractions come in front of us or around us. Interruptions from children or the phone may put you into multitask mode and should be removed if possible. On the computer, particularly dealing with the internet, we are often forced to multitask. Advertising pops into our screen and draws our attention. We look at an email list before we focus in on the one we need to deal with. Outside of the computer realm, line your tasks up out of sight and hit them one at a time. When things are lined up sequentially, our brain is not forced to do this task and more energy is diverted to the task at hand, increasing productivity.

2. Take Breaks

Studies show that our attention span is usually maxed out at an hour and 15 minutes and productivity declines quickly there after. This is actually the reason most classes are kept to an hour or breaks are given every hour!  Dr. Levitin pointed out in a recent New York Times article that air traffic controllers are forced to take breaks every 1-2 hours for a good 15-30 minutes.  He relates that this is important in processing the information that it has acquired during a period of rest. This, in-turn, improves the memory of what has been learned and improves productivity in the post-break period.

3. Externalize Information

Albert Einstein said, "Never memorize something you can look up."  I love this saying, especially coming from this man,who clearly pushed the bounds of his mind - perhaps, thanks to this very practice. Things like phone numbers, remembering to perform tasks in the future, and grocery lists can serve as clutter that could be better stored outside the brain. Writing things down as a list or a sticky note can help accomplish this and in this case, technology like phone apps and other organizational tools can actually be a help.  This process is known as externalization and frees the mind for tasking or creativity.

In Summary:

Experts feel that the amount of information produced in the last 25 years at least equals the amount of information produced in all of time.  If this is true, the tidal wave of information before us is increasing exponentially. It is debatable whether we can effectively and efficiently drink from the firehose of information in regards to the data we encounter on a daily basis.  If you do feel overwhelmed and lost in these modern times, slow down and take deliberate steps to unitask. Take breaks frequently to reset your mind and absorb the information.  Finally, harness technology to help externalize rote information.


1. The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin, PhD., 2014.


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