Posts Tagged ‘Information overload’

Notes on “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”

December 26, 2015

“Reclaiming Conversation” is a book by Sherry Turkle.  She focuses on smartphones in particular.  As a matter of personal edification, and as the user of a dumb cell phone I  found this book valuable in understanding the popularity of smartphone and texting.  There are several reasons I do not use a smartphone.  I find the screen size much to small.  I require much more context in what I view.  I also need a conventional keyboard, those on smartphones are much too small.  Similarly I refuse to text and do not read texts.  I also find that smartphones add to an already existing information overload.  Consequently, I do not like interruptions and live in a world where timeliness will not suffer if I wait until a time when I am free to devote full attention to messages and material which is important to process.  Having read Turkle’s book, I have no desire for a smartphone, and should I ever purchase a smartphone, I’ll use it sparingly.

I’ve long been baffled trying to understand why people text when it is so much easier to talk.  Most teenagers send around 100 texts per day, so there must be some reason this is so popular.  Apparently, there is a sense of control when one texts.  One can read what one has written before it is sent, and once it is sent, one can wait to see if and who, if anyone responds.  So many feel that texting provides a sense of control that they feel is important.

In addition to needing to feel in control, there also seems to be a compulsion to be connected.  According to Turkle, 44% of users never turn off their phones.  Although I understand the data indicating that people feel a need to be connected most of the time, I still fail to see why they feel this necessity.  The healthy memory blog has written posts about FACEBOOK and Dunbar’s number.  See the healthy memory blog post “How Many Friends is Too Many.”  Dunbar is an evolutionary biologist who calculated the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be 150.  Before smartphones Dunbar estimated that there are about five people who are close and who we speak with frequently, and  about 100 acquaintances we speak with about once a year.  With the exception of the 150 number, which is a biological constraint, the other numbers have apparently gone up drastically since the advent of the cell phone.  Friendship requires an investment of time.  We can only afford a limited number of good friends.  A large number of friends implies a large number of superficial relationships.  It appears that in the smartphone era, quantity is valued over quality.

There also appears to be an aversion to solitude.  An experiment was run in which participants were asked to sit by themselves for fifteen minutes.  They were provided a device which they could use to shock themselves, although all the participants indicated that they would not use the device.  Nevertheless, many of the participants shocked themselves after only six minutes.  I find this result extremely depressing, to think that people would find solitude that they chose to give themselves an aversive shock to cope with loneliness.  Solitude is important for both personal and intellectual development.  We need to spend time with ourselves.

One researcher reports a 40% loss of empathy in the past 20 years.  The healthy memory blog post “A Single Shifting Mega-Organism noted that throughout our lives our brain circuitry decodes the emotions of others based on extremely subtle facial cues.  Geoff Colvin and many others regard empathy as a uniquely human skill that will prevent computers from pushing humans out of the job market.  Well, empathy apps are being developed.  But empathy is developed best during conversations with our fellow humans.  This excessive use of smartphones are inhibiting, if not precluding this development.

Smartphone use implies multitasking, and whenever we multitask the performance on component tasks declines.  If you do not believe this, then read the 18 healthy memory blog posts on the topic.  The use of smartphones during classes detracts from the lecture or the topic being discussed.  Were I still teaching I would not allow the use of smartphones during classes.

There is a chapter on smartphones and romance that I found extremely depressing.  Most of the time I am envious of the young in this digital age, but not in the case of romance.  In short, smartphones take the romance out of romance.

I disagree with what Turkle writes about Massively Online Open Courses.  She puts conversations against  these courses and ignores the genuine benefits of these courses.  First of all, a Massively Online Open Course does not preclude conversations.  Secondly, conversations, as important as they are, need not be a necessary component of all courses.

At the end of the book Turtle writes about humanoid robots and robotic pets.  I did not see the relevance of these topics to the central thesis regarding conversations.

So having stated the problem, what can be done about it.

First of all, having recognized the costs of multi-tasking and do a cost benefit analysis of where smartphone use is appropriate.  Then establish rules or guidelines.

It is noted that many employees of social media companies make it a point to send their children to technology free schools.  And there is the following quotation from Steve Jobs biographer.  “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and variety of things.  No one ever pulled out an iPAD or computer.  He did not encourage his own children’s use of iPADS or iPHONES.

“Restoring Conversations” is extensively documented.  Touching them takes you to the notes.  Unfortunately, there is no DONE enabling an easy return to the text.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Memory Health and Technology

January 18, 2015

Memory Health and Technology is the subtitle for this blog. One of the primary themes of this blog is that we are not victims of technology. Rather, technology provides a means for cognitive development and growth throughout the entire lifespan. Thirteen of the previous fourteen posts were based on Daniel J. Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (the odd post was on tips for fulfilling New Year’s resolutions). The reason for this is that the book directly addresses the goals of the healthy memory blog. It was not possible for my posts to do justice to the entire book, so I would recommend reading the book itself.

Another outstanding book that addresses the goals of the healthymemory blog is The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I strongly recommend this book. If you do not read the book, I urge you at least to read the healthymemory blog posts based on the book. You can find these posts by entering “contemplative computing” into the healthymemory blog search box.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What to Teach Our Children

January 11, 2015

The penultimate chapter in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is titled “What to Teach Our Children.” He considers the world into which today’s children are born in contrast to the world in which we older adults were born. In that world information was both hard and slow to come by. In contrast, today’s world information is much easier to come by. But although vast amounts of information are easily and quickly accessible, this can make finding the exact information needed difficult. And there is the question of assessing the veracity of the information. I would wager that today the most commonly used encyclopedia is the Wikipedia, but anyone can make an entry to the Wikipedia. The vetting process is that the entry can be corrected or elaborated, but the vetting process can produce errors and the original author can change reintroduce the original error. Nevertheless, the Wikipedia works pretty well and I am a frequent user, although I always try to keep these caveats in mind.

Levitin recommends comprehensive instruction in critical thinking for our children, and I would add also for ourselves for the process of critical learning should not end, but should continue as long as we live. So children should be taught how to think critically about an article. They should also consider sources of possible bias. Some journals and websites do make an effort to identify political sources as being conservative or liberal and might even go on to assess the extremity of the political belief. Of course political leanings are not the only source of bias, there are also religious biases, academic biases, and even strongly held biases within different fields of endeavor. For healthymemory blog posts on critical thinking, enter “critical thinking” into the healthymemory blog search box.

Levitin also recommends understanding orders of magnitude to aid understanding how large or how small an object or quantity is. Being able to understand orders of magnitude estimates is important. Basically these are estimates of how many zeroes are in the answer. So if you were asked how many tablespoons of water are in a cup of water. Here are some “power of ten” estimates: 1,10, 100, 1000,etc etc. There are also fractional powers of ten such as 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000, etc. Basically these estimates help us understand the magnitude of size under consideration.

Enrico Fermi was a famous physicist who was famous for making estimates with little or no actual data. This involves sophisticated approximating sometimes called guesstimating. Regardless of its name, it is an important creative thinking skill. Examples of Fermi problems are “How many basketballs will fit into a bus?” “How many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would it take to encircle the globe at the equator?” and “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Here is a four step solution to the last problem.

  1. How often are pianos tuned (How many times per year is a given piano tuned?)

  2. How long does it take to tune a piano?

  3. How many average hours a year does an average piano tuner work?

  4. How many pianos are in Chicago?

One can find the answers to these questions and come up with an approximate answer. Then one can criticize this analysis and propose a different solution. This is a good exercise for developing both creative and critical thinking.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Organizing Our Time

December 14, 2014

Organizing our time is another chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. This chapter is so rich and has so much information that I want to share with you that it will take multiple draft posts, which still will not fully do justice to this chapter.

The first thing to realize about time is that it is an illusion, a creation of our minds, as is color. There is no color in the physical world, just light of different wavelengths reflecting off objects. Newton said the light waves themselves are colorless. Our sense of color is the result of the visual cortex processing these wavelengths and interpreting them as color. Similarly, time can be thought as an interpretation that our brains impose on our experience of the world. We experience the sun rising and setting. We feel hungry at different times and sleep at other times. The moon goes through a series of phases approximately monthly. Seasons are experienced at even larger intervals, then recycle again.

I have long been puzzled as to why there are 24 hours in a day. As the world makes a complete circle of 360 degrees, I would have thought that there would be 36 hours in a day. Apparently this division of 24 hours is due to the ancient Egyptians who divided daytime into 10 parts, then added an hour for each of the ambiguous periods of twilight to achieve 12 parts. There were also 12 corresponding parts for nighttime yielding a 24 hour day. Then it was the Greeks, following the lead of the mathematician Eratosthenes who divided the circle into sixty parts for an early cartographic system representing latitudes. They then divided the hour into sixty minutes, and the minutes into sixty seconds. Still time was kept at local levels until the advent of the railroad that needed accurate timekeeping to avoid collisions. The U.S. Railroads did this in 1883, but the United States Congress didn’t make it into law until 35 years later.

As for organizing our time it is the function of the prefrontal cortex. We have a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than any other species. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of logic, analysis, problem solving, exercising good judgment, planning for the future, and decision-making. Unfortunately, our prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until we are well into our twenties, so there is time, perhaps even too much time, in which to make poor decisions. Not surprisingly the prefrontal cortex is frequently called the central executive, or CEO of the brain. There are extensive two-way connections between the prefrontal cortex and virtually every other region of the brain, so it is in a unique position to schedule monitor, manage, and manipulate almost every activity we undertake. These cerebral CEOs are highly paid in metabolic currency. Clearly, understanding how they work and how they get paid can help us to use our time more effectively.

It might be surprising to learn that most of prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory, but inhibitory. One of the greatest achievements of the human prefrontal cortex is that it provides impulse control and the ability to delay gratification. Without this impulse control, it is unlikely that civilizations would have developed. And I can’t help speculating how there might be fewer wars, crime, and substance abuse if the prefrontal cortex were more fully engaged.

When the prefrontal cortex becomes damaged, it leads to a medical condition called dysexecutive syndrome. Under this condition there is no control of time. Even the ability to perform the correct sequence of actions in the preparation of a meal is impaired It is also frequently accompanied by an utter lack of inhibition for a range of behaviors, especially in social settings. Sufferers might blurt out inappropriate remarks, or go on binges of gambling drinking, and sexual activity with inappropriate partners. They tend to act on what is in front of them. If they see someone moving, they are likely to imitate them. If they see an object, they tend to pick it up and use it. Obviously this disorder wreaks havoc with organizing time. If your inhibitions are reduced and you have difficulty seeing the future consequences of your actions, you might do things now that you regret later, or make it difficult to complete projects you’re working on. As for organizing your time, engage your prefrontal cortex, and take care of and protect your prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is also important for creativity. It is important for making connections and associations between disparate thoughts and concepts. This is the region of the brain that is most active when creative artists are performing at their peak.

Levitin offers the following suggestion for seeing what it’s like to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. This damage is reversible provided it is not done too often. His suggestion is to get drunk. Alcohol interferes with the ability of prefrontal cortex neurons to communicate with one another, by disrupting dopamine receptors and blocking a neuron called an NMDA receptor, mimicking the damage seen in frontal lobe patients. Heavy drinkers experience a double whammy. Although they may lose certain control or motor coordination or the ability to drive safely, but they aren’t aware that they’ve lost them or simply don’t care. So they forge ahead anyway.

Memory, Attention, Consciousness

November 30, 2014

I’ve just begun reading The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin. I’ve already realized that I should have read this book some time ago, and it is already clear that I am going to recommend it. Usually I do not recommend books until I’ve completed reading them, but I am making an exception in this case. It is already clear that much of the advice will involve transactive memory. Before proceeding with advice providing posts, I feel compelled to write a post on memory, attention, and consciousness. These three topics are central to the healthymemory blog, and although Levitin does not necessarily provide new information, I think that his treatment of these topics deserve special consideration.

Here is how Levitin begins Chapter 2 on How Memory and Attention work, “We live in a world of illusions. We think we are aware of everything going around us. We look out and see an uninterrupted picture of the visual world, composed of thousands of little detailed images. We may know that each of us has a blind spot, but we go on blissfully unaware of where it actually is because our occipital cortex does such a good job of filling in the missing information and hence hiding it from us.

“We attend to objects in the environment partly based on our will (we choose to pay attention to some things), partly based on an alert system that monitors our world for danger, and partly based on our brain’s own vagaries. Our brains come preconfigured to create categories and classifications of things automatically and without our conscious intervention. When the systems we’re trying to set up are in collision with the way our brain automatically categorizes things, we end up losing things, missing appointments, or forgetting to do things we needed to do.”

Regular readers of the healthymemory blog should know that memory is not a passive storage system for data. Rather it is dynamic, guiding our perception, helping us to deal with the present and project into the future. Fundamentally it is a machine for time travel. It is not static, but constantly changing, with the sometimes unfortunate consequent in our being highly confident of faulty recollections. Memories are the product of assemblies of neurons firing. New information, learning, is the result of new cell assemblies being formed. Neurons are living cells that can connect to each other, and they can connect to each other in trillions of different ways. The number of possible brain states that each of us can have is so large that it exceeds the number of known particles in the universe. (I once asked a physicist how they computed this number of known particles and he told me. I would pass this on to you had I not forgotten his answer.)

Attention is critical as there is way too much information to process. So we need to select the information to which we want to attend. Sometimes this selection process itself demands.substantial attention. Moreover, switching attention requires attention, which only exacerbates attentional limitations when multitasking.

Consciousness has been explained as the conversation among these neurons. Levitin has offered the explanation that there are multiple different cell assemblies active at one time. Consciousness is the result of the selection of one of these cell assemblies. In other words, there are multiple trains of thought, and we must choose one of them to ride.

A critical question is how to employ our limited consciousness effectively. One way is the practice of mindfulness meditation to try to achieve a Zen-like focus of living in the moment. This can be accomplished through a regular meditation regimen. However, we should not neglect the short time application of this mindfulness. We need to apply this Zen-like focus when putting things down (your keys, important items), so you’ll remember where you put them. Also do not neglect uses of transactive memory and put notes in planners, on calendars, or in your electronic device so you’re sure you’ll be able to access them.

Smartphone Usability

February 1, 2014

I confess to not having a smartphone. Before the advent of personal computers, complaints were being heard about information overload, there being too much information to process. This problem was significantly increased by the advent of personal computers, significantly exacerbated by the internet, and has become much worse with smartphones. I don’t have a smartphone, and I was recently encouraged when I bought a new dumb phone that came with the warning to not use while driving. I don’t feel a need for a smartphone and find not having one helps me deal with the problem of information overload. I’d rather wait until I can conveniently get to my laptop rather than deal with the minute keyboards and displays.

An article1 in the Washington Post further raised the issue of usability. According to a Gallup Poll, 62% of Americans now own a smartphone. But according to the Pew Research Center only half of these users download apps and read or send e-mail. A 2012 Harris Interactive Poll found that just 5% of Americans used their smartphones to show codes for movie admission or to show an airline boarding pass. Moreover, these problems are not limited to the older generation. Experts who study smartphone use, as well as tech-support professionals who work with the confused say that smartphone usability problems at all ages and for all kinds of reasons. The Genius Bar at Apple2 stores sometimes require that desperate iPhone users make their appointments days in advance.

Clearly the issue of usability is missing. Absent are design guidelines for smartphones that emphasis usability. Here are some design principles from an Adroid developer’s Web site: “Enchant me, simplify my life, make me amazing.” What about making my smartphone easy to use rather than complicating my life?

Back in the old days of command line interfaces, usability was a key requirement for government users. With the advent of graphical user interfaces (GUIs), that requirement is missing. Unfortunately, the government appears to have bought Apple’s propaganda that GUIs are intuitive. GUIs can and should be made intuitive, but a GUI without usability guidelines usually will not.

Please weigh in with your comments on this topic.

1Rosenwald, M.S. (2013). Phones getting smarter, but their users aren’t. Washington Post, 19 January C1..

2Apple promoted their intuitive point and click interface. There is ample research to prove that this claim was a lie.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Digital Sabbaths

October 23, 2013

Appendix Three in The Distraction Addiction1. is titled “DIY Digital Sabbath.” In other words it discusses do it yourself techniques for taking a day off from digital technology. The first appendix describes the the technology diary that Ohio State University professor Jesse Fox assigns to her students. The diary is supposed to capture every mediated/technological interaction over the course of a day. I think the first question regarding digital Sabbaths is whether we should observe one. The results of such a diary might help someone make this decision. I think the answer to this question depends upon whether you are addicted to technology. I think the best test of this is whether you can go an entire day “cold turkey” without using any technology. If you answer, “yes,” then I think there is some question as to whether a digital Sabbath is in order. If the answer is “no,” then I think consideration of whether a digital Sabbath or an alternative I shall offer at the end of this post is in order.

Should you decide you need to observe a digital Sabbath, here are some guidelines offered by Dr. Pang:

Set a regular time.

Figure out what to turn off.

Don’t talk about digital sabbaths (except for friends who complain about your nonresponsiveness).

Fill the time with engaging activities

Be patient.

Be open to the spiritual qualities of the Sabbath.

Enjoy your escape from “real time.”

Before offering my alternative to a digital Sabbath let me provide some context. Within my lifetime, information overload had been raised as a serious problem before the advent of personal computers. I remember reading that this problem of information overload was raised after the invention of the printing press. Now the use of personal computers has increased this overload further, and the advent of mobile computing has increased this overload further still.

I don’t regard myself as being addicted to technology. I can easily pass the cold turkey test. When I go on a vacation, I don’t use technology. I do bring a cell phone, which I do not use unless there is an emergency. Had I been asked many years ago if personal computing devices would become popular, I would have confidently offered the opinion, “No.” My reason would have been the displays would be too small, and the keyboards would be difficult to use.” Time has proven me to be to both wrong and a fool. But personally I don’t use these devices because nothing is so urgent that it will not wait until I can get to a laptop that I can use in comfort. I do have a dumb cell phone and a Kindle, but that’s all.

So I think a good way of dealing with the distraction addiction is to consider the urgency of using this technology. Many healthymemory blog posts have addressed the dangers of using a phone while driving. Whether hands are free or not is irrelevant. The problem is that using a device that detracts attention from driving increases the risk of accidents, injuries, and deaths. I would argue that there is a similar risk in using a personal computing device in an area in which there are also automobiles. Information overload can best be dealt with, and the distraction addiction avoided, by using technology when it can be conveniently and safely used. I’m well aware that this is not the cultural norm. So you might want to explain to your friends why you might appear to be unresponsive, and suggest the benefits that they could enjoy by using technology with discretion.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Contemplative Computing

September 22, 2013

According to Nielsen and the Pew Research Center, Americans spend an average of 60 hours a month online. That’s 729 hours a year, which is the equivalent of 90 eight-hour days per year. Twenty of these days are spent in social networking sites, 38 viewing content on news sites, YouTube, blogs, and so on, and 32 doing email. Remember, these numbers of averages, so numbers for individuals can be considerably higher or lower. The usual response to this is that we are being overwhelmed by technology.

Readers of the healthymemory blog should know that this blog is not sympathetic to articles and books complaining that we are suffering victims of our technology. The Distraction Addiction, in spite of its title, is not one of these books. Its author, Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is a senior business consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Silicon Valley-based think tank, and a visiting scholar at Stanford and Oxford universities. He has also been a Microsoft Research fellow. Dr. Pang is an advocate of contemplative computing, of not letting technology rule our lives, but instead of using this technology and interacting with our fellow humans to extend and grown our capabilities. Using technology and interacting with our fellow humans is referred to in the healthymemory blog as transactive memory. Contemplative computing aligns directly with what is being advocated in the healthymemory blog. Transactive memory, mindfulness, and meditation are central to the message of the healthymemory blog.

There are four big ideas, or principles in The Distraction Addiction.

The first big idea is our relationships with information technologies are incredibly deep and express unique human capacities.

The second big idea is the world has become a more distracting place—and there are solutions for bringing the extended mind back under control.

The third big idea is it’s necessary to be contemplative about technology.

And the fourth big idea is you can redesign your extended mind.

Were I to assign a text for the healthymemory blog, it would be The Distraction Addiction. Although it would not be appropriate for me to assign a text, I certainly do recommend your reading The Distraction Addiction. Given its relevance, I shall be basing many healthymemory blog posts on this book, but I can never do justice to the original.

In the meantime, you can visit www.contemplativecomputing.org

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Dealing with Technology and Information Overload

July 28, 2013

Whenever I read or hear something about our being victims of technology, I become extremely upset. I’ve written blog posts on this topic (See “Commentary on Newsweek’s. Cover Story iCrazy,” and “Net Smart.”) We are not passive entities. We need to be in charge of our technology. There was a very good article on this topic in the August 2013 issue of Mindful magazine. It is titled “A User’s Guide to Screenworld,” and is written by Richard Fernandez of Google who sits down with Arturo Bejar, director of engineering at Facebook, and Irene Au, the vice president of product and design at Udacity. Here are five strategies for dealing with different components of this issue.

Information Overload. There is way too much information to deal with and we must shield ourselves from being overwhelmed. We must realize that our time is both limited and costly. So we need to be selective and choose our sources wisely. When we feel our minds tiring we should rest or move on.

Constant Distraction. Multi-tasking costs. There is a cost in performing more than one task at a time. So try to complete one task or a meaningful segment of a task before moving on to another task. Let phone calls go to voice mail. Respond to email at designated times rather than jumping to each email as it arrives.

Friends, Partners, Stuck on Their Devices. Personally I cannot stand call waiting. I don’t have it on my phone, and if someone goes to their call waiting while talking with me, they will likely find that I am not on the phone should they return. Technology is no excuse for being discourteous. Moreover, technology provides us a means for being courteous, voice mail. So unless there is an emergency lurking, there is no reason for taking the call. Clearly, when there are job demands or something really important, there are exceptions, but every effort should be extended to be courteous. When there are other people present, give them your attention, not your devices. And call it to their attention when you feel you are being ignored.

Social Media Anxiety. Try to keep your involvement with social media to a minimum. The friending business on Facebook can be quite annoying. Moreover, for the most part these friends are superficial. Remember Dunbar’s Number (See the healthymemory blog posts, ‘How Many Friends are Too Many?” “Why is Facebook So Popular?” and “Why Are Our Brains So Large?). Dunbar’s number is the maximum number of people we can keep track of at one time is 150, but the number of people that we speak with frequently is closer to 5. I would be willing to up the number of close friends a bit, but it is still small. And he says that there are about 100 people we speak to about once a year.

Children Spending Too Much Time Staring at Screens. The advice here is to express an interest in your children’s digital life. Try to share it with them and try to develop an understanding of how to deal with technology and information overload.

Let me end with a quote by Arene Au from the article, which is definitely worth quoting: “We need to get up from our desks and move. There is a strong correlation between cognition and movement. We’re more creative when we move.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on the Dangers of Information Overload

March 9, 2011

I recently read another article on the dangers of information overload. In my view there cannot be too many articles on information overload as this is a serious problem. This Newsweek article1 is quite good. It reported the reseach of the Director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, Angelika Dimoka, who employed brain imaging (fMRI) techniques to examine how the brain respond people are trying to make decisions when they are severely overtaxed. She found that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and the control of emotions, suddenly fell off when the information load increased. It was similar to a circuit breaker popping. Now activity in the parts of the brain registering emotional activity, the parts of the brain normally kept in check by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, ran wild. So the research participants made stupid decisions and their anxiety levels soared.

The article also points out that this concern with information overload is not new. Leibniz bemoaned the “horrible mass of books which keeps on growing,” in the 17th Century. In 1729 Alexander Pope warned of “a deluge of authors covering the land.” But the problem today is many, many orders of magnitude larger, both respect to the amount of information and the rapidity with which it arrives.

The article notes that one reason for this limitation is the limited capacity of short-term memory. One way of looking at short-term memory is the number of items that we can attend to at one time. Here is where the Magic Number 7 Plus or Minus Two, created comes in. Actually subsequent research has indicated that the true magic number might be 5 or even lower. An important factor is the nature of the items to be remembered. It is prudent that you do not consider more options at a time than is warranted by your magic number. So if more items need to be evaluated, it is good to evaluate them in groups, with run-offs, if necessary.

Another ramification of this limitation in short-term memory is that recency trumps quality. So there is the risk of a poorer choice being made simply due to the order in which the options were considered. So in addition to considering options in groups, also consider the order in which the option was considered.

When the number of options is large, it is good to resort to transactive memory. That is, write things down, use a spreadsheet, whatever. Try to develop a systematic scoring system to evaluate options.

The Newsweek also mentions the neglected unconscious. Provide sufficient time to allow your unconscious mind to work for you. The article presents evidence supporting the benefits of unconscious processing. Also remember that making the optimal decision is often not realistic. Be satisfied with satisficing, the process identified by the Nobel Lauerate Herbert Simon. Be satasified with considering enough information to assure yourself that the decision is satisfactory and should not lead to disappointment.

1Begley, S. (2011). I Can’t Think. Newsweek, March 7, 28-33.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on Dangers of the Internet: Are We Incurable Infovores?

November 14, 2010

An article1 in the New Scientist compels me to address this question. An analogy is made between our obesity problem and an internet problem. The problem of obesity, not only in the United States but in most advanced countries, is well known. One reason offered for this problem is that our evolutionary history has made us predisposed to crave fat and sugar. Long ago when food was scarce it was adaptive to consume these high energy foods. Unfortunately, now when such foods become easily accessible we tend to overeat them with the resultant obesity.

The New Scientist article argues that we are similarly predisposed to seek novel information because it was biologically adaptive. So we are infovores just as we are carnivores (more properly omnivores with the exception of those who have chosen to be vegetarians or vegans). And with the arrival of the fire hose of information provided by the internet we are being placed in danger from the consequences of information overload.

According to the article, in 2009 the global data traffic was around 15,000 petabytes (1 petabyte equals 1 million gigabytes). The projects is that this volume will exceed 20,000 petabytes this year and will grow to more than 50,000 petabytes in 2013. Of course, no individual will encounter even a small percentage of this information. And as is frequently argued in this Healthymemory Blog, one should use the internet wisely not only to avoid the dangers of addiction, but also to enhance the prospects for cognitive growth.

This article makes no mention of what percentage of this so-called information is quality information. I would not be surprised if a majority of this so-called information is incorrect and is not truly information. Then there is hateful traffic, which cannot be rightfully called information. I would like to see some breakdowns on estimates of the quality of the information on the internet. If anyone knows of any such sources on internet information quality, please provide the names, URLs, addresses of these sources in the comment box. I am thanking you in advance.

1Parsons, P. (2010). Ignorance is Bliss. New Scientist, 16, 38-39. 

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