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TMI: surviving the age of information without melting down

The future was supposed to be easier than the present. In the 60s, cartoons like the Jetsons promised us flying cars, robot maids, and talking dogs. Technology would be the bridge to stronger relationships and happiness.

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We’re not quite there. In fact, today’s reality proves we are poor prophets of the future. Instead of living in utopia, George Jetson would be worrying about layoffs and offshoring, about his boy Elroy’s addiction to smartphones and online gaming, and probably developing low self-esteem from social media jealousy. The problem is information. We can become overloaded by it. For every minor question there is an infinite number of answers. Paralysis by analysis has gone from a cute catchphrase to a very real challenge. There’s even a name for it, coined in the 90s by psychologist David Lewis: Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS). In an article for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Joseph Ruff suggests dozens of negative effects related to IFS. He believes the onslaught of information can negatively affect learning, creative problem-solving, business performance, physical and mental health, and relationships. Symptoms can include poor concentration, stress (and its associated health problems), fatigue, and even hostility. And it’s not just any information. It’s specific to online information. In a 2012 study, UC Irvine researchers Misra and Stokols compared the effects of information overload from online sources versus non-online sources. They found that higher levels of online information led to higher perceived stress and health problems. Think of when you ask your computer to play a movie, open a database file, video chat, stream music, find a file, and install a program all at once. It freezes, revealing the rainbow wheel or the blue screen of death.

That’s our brain on too much information. Technology has the potential to provide us with more information than we can handle at times. In 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt revealed a frightening statistic. “There were five exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003,” he explained at the Techonomy conference. “That much information is now created every two days, and the pace is increasing.” It can be impossible to act when presented with infinite data sources. Something as simple as buying a pen can take hours of research—reading reviews, comparing prices, evaluating weight and dimensions—if we let it. We can be swept out to sea by the barrage of information, never fully present in the moment. Meditation offers a solution. Meditation offers a chance to break away from the chaos of the world. It provides a space in the brain where we can take back our lives. We gain control over what we choose to focus on and what is important, so we can make the right decisions for our lives—from the major ones to the minor. We need to empty the garage before we can organize it. In doing so, we even uncover things we thought were lost. Not only that, but a clear brain is also crucial for good health. Erik Fransén, a researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, studies short-term memory. He has expressed concern that social media—and the associated information overload—negatively affects brain performance. “The brain is made to go into a less active state, which we might think is wasteful,” he explained in an interview with KTH. “But probably memory consolidation, and transferring information into memory takes place in this state … When we max out our active states with technology equipment, just because we can, we remove from the brain part of the processing, and it can’t work.” With all the information available to us, we can become easily distracted or consumed by the wrong information. The Internet is riddled with headlines designed to pull us away. Before we know it we’ve gone from researching the positions of presidential candidates to things that cats do that would be creepy if you did them. Before we even ask ourselves, “Do I need that information?” we’re off on a search. So when you find yourself wandering, in your head or on the web, gently bring your mind back to the present, to the breath. Maybe our present is not the one dreamed up in the Jetsons. But by finding calm in our minds, perhaps we can create our own individual utopia.

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