Information Overload

Posted: May 8, 2009 in Uncategorized


As an almost librarian (1 more course plus my practicum left!!), I’m necessarily obsessed by information, most especially the issues related to the incredible amounts of it assailing us from every direction.

One of my biggest concerns is how to keep up with it all, or as much as is important and pertinent to our lives. For example, I get multiple offers for review copies of books every day. Some are from authors themselves, some from their PR people, some from the publishing house. I can barely keep up with them. Then, there are the newsletters, from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Shelf Life, Chronicle for Higher Education, Salon, etc.

I want to read them all, but there’s only so much time in the day. But that’s not all I want to read. I’m forever Googling something, or looking up articles on various databases, related either to general interests I have, school projects, ideas for articles, etc.

Then, there’s all the writing I do, keeping up with blogs, keeping a journal, etc. Sometimes I need to fact check for those, too, so I turn to the internet. Then, while I’m on, I check my email. And something else I’m interested in comes to mind, so I pursue that. And so on, and so on. It’s a losing battle, one that leaves me feel stressed, guilty and frustrated.

That’s one reason I grabbed a copy of the new book The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory by Torkel Klingberg, as soon as I found libraries had it in their collections. I was surprised by some of what Klingberg said. Klingberg asserts our brains can expand to meet growing needs, and that we don’t use its full capacity. But that doesn’t mean the capacity is infinite. By educating ourselves on unfamiliar, interesting topics we can increase the area of our brain where such things are stored, but we have so much coming at us at once, and we still don’t know what impact that will have on the human brain in the future.

Multitasking, for instance, overloads the brain. It’s one thing to read a lot, to try and retain new information, but it’s another thing when we try to do too many things at once:

“New findings in psychology and brain research suggest that the difficulties we find with simultaneous performance and distractions converge onto one central limitation: the ability to retain information. When you’re trying to do two things at once, you have to juggle two different sets of instructions in your head. This is double the amount of information relative to if you only had one instruction. When you’re distracted, you often end up losing the original information, which leaves you standing in a room without knowing what you’re doing there.”

How many of us haven’t done that? Yesterday, for example, I had an evening appointment with a doctor. I usually see her on Saturday mornings, so because this was an unusual time for me to see her, I left Post It notes for myself all over the house. Otherwise, I knew what would happen. I’d hop on the computer and forget all about it, or I’d start making dinner and time would pass before I knew it, or one of a thousand other things. So, to assure I wouldn’t forget, I put notes on things like the door, the refrigerator, the cabinet where the glasses are, etc. To mock me and my bad memory, my oldest child stuck one on the kitchen ceiling.

It worked; I didn’t forget.

Klingberg goes on to say:

“The brains with which we are born today are almost identical to those with which Cro-Magnons were born forty thousand years ago. If there is some inherent limitation to our ability to handle information, it should be present already at this time, when the most technologically advanced artifact was the barbed bone harpoon. The same brain now has to take on the torrent of information that the digital society discharges over us. A Cro-Magnon human met in one year as many people as you and I can meet in one day. The volume and complexity of the information we’re expected to handle continues to increase. If there are any inbuilt limitations that serve as some kind of shutoff valve, what mental functions are we then talking about? Where will we find the bottleneck in the brain’s capacity to process information?”

Where, indeed?

“There is general concern about what the fast pace of society is doing to our mental well-being. Books and magazines are full of advice on how we can learn to be less stressed, lower the demands on ourselves, and take life easier: slow cities, slow food, time for reflection, and so forth.”

How many of us feel balanced? How many take time to relax and reflect, to actively meditate on what’s important to us, to write in a journal and reflect, to generally allow ourselves downtime?

As of just over a year ago, I realized how I was jam-packing my life. I was a wife and mother, worked part-time (and still do), went to grad school full and part-time (depending on the semester), wrote a column or two regularly, kept up with my blogs, volunteered occasionally at school, and read and reviewed books on a frequent basis.

Does that sound like one person’s life? After doing that for a few years I saw myself burning out. I was, and continue to be, exhausted. I knew something had to give. So, I stopped writing the columns. I stopped reviewing books. I became a less-frequent blog poster. I began relaxing a bit more in the evenings. I watched more educational programs, instituted Friday movie nights with the whole family. Though I had tremendous amounts of homework, I made sure to limit how much I did, to let go of the need for perfection. Kind of. I’d still like to keep that 4.0 …

Of course, my lust for information hasn’t stopped. I still spend an awful lot of time pursuing interesting topics. I read a lot, and am returning to reviewing now that grad school is starting to wind down, finally. I still do too much.

Occasionally I go away to a retreat and spend a few days without internet access, telephones or television. I read, I write, I take naps and walks. I love taking photos, so I do that, too. I can’t do that sort of thing often, but I try to get away once a year or so. It helps, and so does increasing my exercise and taking naps.

But that call to read, to learn more … It calls to me every, single day. It’s a big modern day issue, and one I think Klingberg handles well. I recommend all librarians with these same concerns read this book. It’s not that long, at 169 pages, plus notes and index. And it’s accessibly written, i.e., I didn’t feel overwhelmed by it or any sort of technical jargon.

I know things will only get worse from here. Maybe it’s time we stopped and asked ourselves just how we’re going to handle our own information overflow, as it becomes more and more a widespread issue. Once we have a grip on ourselves, maybe we can help others with the same problem. And, being in the business of information, I think we owe ourselves and our patrons as much help as we can possibly give.

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (November 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195372883
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