information overload and decision-making -- 3/03/15
Today's selection -- from The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin. We live in a world with 300 exabytes (300 billion billion) of information, an amount that is rapidly expanding to ever greater amounts from this already brobdingnagian level. And yet the processing capacity of the conscious mind is a mere 120 bits per second. This presents a challenge to not only our processing capacity, but also our decision-making ability:
"Neuroscientists have discovered that unproductively and loss of drive can result from decision overload. Although most of us have no problem ranking the importance of decisions if asked to do so, our brains don't automatically do this. ... The mere situation of facing ... many [small] decisions in daily life creates neural fatigue, leaving no energy for the important decisions. Recent research shows that people who were asked to make a series of meaningless decisions ... showed poorer impulse control and lack of judgment about subsequent decisions. It's as though our brains are configured to make a certain number of decisions per day and once we reach that limit, we can't make any more, regardless of how important they are. One of the most useful findings in recent neuroscience could be summed up as: The decision-making network in our brain doesn't prioritize.
"Today, we are confronted with an unprecedented amount of information, and each of us generates more information than ever before in human history. ... Information scientists have quantified all this: In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986 -- the equivalent of 175 newspapers. During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day. The world's 21,274 television stations produce 85,000 hours of original programming every day as we watch an average of 5 hours of television each day, the equivalent of 20 gigabytes of audio-video images. That's not counting YouTube, which uploads 6,000 hours of video every hour. And computer gaming? It consumes more bytes than all other media put together, including DVDs, TV, books, magazines, and the Internet.
"Just trying to keep our own media and electronic files organized can be overwhelming. Each of us has the equivalent of over half a million books stored on our computers, not to mention all the information stored in our cell phones or in the magnetic stripe on the back of our credit cards. We have created a world with 300 exabytes (300,000,000,000,000,000,000 pieces) of human-made information. If each of those pieces of information were written on a 3 x 5 index card and then spread out side by side, just one person's share -- your share of this information -- would cover every square inch of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
"Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in, but at a cost: We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired. Neurons are living cells with a metabolism; they need oxygen and glucose to survive and when they've been working hard, we experience fatigue. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.
"The processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at 120 bits per second. That bandwidth, or window, is the speed limit for the traffic of information we can pay conscious attention to at anyone time. While a great deal occurs below the threshold of our awareness, and this has an impact on how we feel and what our life is going to be like, in order for something to become encoded as part of your experience, you need to have paid conscious attention to it.
"What does this bandwidth restriction -- this information speed limit mean in terms of our interactions with others? In order to understand one person speaking to us, we need to process 60 bits of information per second. With a processing limit of 120 bits per second, this means you can barely understand two people talking to you at the same time. Under most circumstances, you will not be able to understand three people talking at the same time. We're surrounded on this planet by billions of other humans, but we can understand only two at a time at the most! It's no wonder that the world is filled with so much misunderstanding. With such attentional restrictions, it's clear why many of us feel overwhelmed by managing some of the most basic aspects of life."