How Do Our Brains Manage Information Overload?

The main cause of brain overload is fairly simple: our brains only have a limited capacity to store a certain amount of information at once. Experts and researchers have suggested a number of ways to improve the brain’s ability to process and handle information.

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Have you ever experienced a phase in your life when you were overloaded with an endless amount of work? This situation is undoubtedly a shared experience within the Stuyvesant community. It is a common phenomenon to see individuals struggling to decide which assignments are more relevant than others, how to stay on task, or how to schedule time wisely. Well, it is definitely not an easy problem for the small creatures inside our brains to deal with, either. All things considered, it’s actually quite impressive that our brains are capable of processing all the information we receive.

The main cause of brain overload is fairly simple: our brains are limited in the amount of information they can store at once. When our brains are constantly distracted, the percentage of overstimulation that occurs will dramatically increase as more information continuously updates in the data stream. Daniel Levitin, one of the most notable neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists in this field of research, wrote that “...multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time.” The depletion of oxygenated glucose, the fuel for brain function, occurs at a much faster rate when we repeatedly switch our attention from one activity to another. As more individuals become influenced by the distractions of our modern world, brain fatigue may lead to severe consequences; we can end up making unsatisfactory choices for significant decisions.

Professor Robert Desimone, a brain researcher and director at the McGovern Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, carries out investigations to explore how human brains are able to use selective attention, or the ability to focus on a particular object, while ignoring other irrelevant stimuli in the environment; process an excessive amount of information simultaneously; and stay focused when distractions are present. According to research conducted by Desimone Lab, relevant messages are amplified in certain regions of the brain, while the irrelevant ones are suppressed. The neurons acquiring relevant information are generally synchronized with each other, producing the rhythmic activity that contains a chorus chanting, or unified reaction, in order for the information to be prioritized by other regions of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex is a region in the brain that covers the front portion of the frontal lobe and is responsible for executive functions, such as planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and self-control. Desimone showed that the prefrontal cortex plays an important role in regulating and balancing brain activities; in other words, it is the conductor of the chorus and controls the rhythmic activity in certain parts of the brain.

Furthermore, distractions can sometimes be beneficial to brain activity as long as they are balanced with the need to stay on task. If this balance is disrupted, different aspects of life will be impaired. Desimone suggests that if the simultaneous oscillations of our neurons are altered, brain diseases, including attention deficit disorder, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia, can emerge. By strengthening this synchrony, researchers may be able to develop treatments for these attention-related illnesses.

Fortunately, it is possible to improve our brain’s ability to process information. Rather than reflecting on all prior activities, reflecting on what just happened sharpens the brain’s ability to handle more information and perform more tasks at the same time. The two mechanisms for filtering information are proactive and reactive: “proactive” filtering refers to the preparation for brain overload beforehand, while “reactive” filtering focuses on dealing with too much information in real time. To utilize the proactive filtering method, we can make decisions ahead of time and eliminate the irrelevant information that may otherwise fill up a great portion of our memory tank. For instance, I usually turn off the notifications of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram: they are something I can ignore to control the environment I am exposed to while working.

As mentioned earlier, a deliberate number of distractions may not be as intimidating as they appear to be. These distractions can remove the unnecessary information inside your short-term memory and increase productivity by utilizing a technique called spaced learning. Spaced learning is founded on the principle that information is more easily absorbed when it is divided into short time intervals and repeated several times with breaks in between these repetitions. A study showed that interspersing 10-minute passing times over a 24-hour period is much more effective than what we call “traditional” learning, which offers a deluge of information over a prolonged period of time. This is mainly because shorter sessions stimulate the right amount of attention to achieve long-term memory retention and minimize the forgetting curve.

There are several other recommended ways to retrain your brain to handle information overload: represent tasks externally, make decisions in the morning, and organize your physical environment. By categorizing and prioritizing tasks in a logical order, you can get all the information out of your head and see them objectively. Levitin claimed: “If you spend your day making a bunch of little decisions and it comes time to make a big important one, you’re neurologically depleted.”

Because your brain’s resources are generally maximized in the morning, you may consider all the major decision-making after a good night’s sleep. Evidence suggests that we respond to acute psychological stress more efficiently in the morning than in the evening because the concentration of cortisol, the main stress hormone in your body, is maximized during the day and minimized at night. Cortisol is also known to aid in the fight-or-flight response as it provides an energy source to handle stress and restores balance afterward. Especially given that our classes start at 9:00 a.m., it is feasible for Stuyvesant students to wake up earlier and accomplish more in the morning before our first class.

Additionally, the organization of your physical environment can serve as reminders to lessen the burden on your brain, which can also reduce the pressure on your brain to recall information. Personally, small actions, such as leaving an umbrella on the table so I don’t forget to bring it with me the next day, can prevent me from forgetting things and are especially helpful when I am in a rush or when my brain is overloaded with other information.

Even though these methods seem conventional and require only a small amount of effort, it is challenging to create new habits. Information literacy, the ability to find, evaluate, organize, use, and communicate information in various forms, is a helpful way to approach these tactics. One research study demonstrated that information literacy has become one of the most crucial abilities in both academic performance and career development, and people are encouraged to train their information literacy capabilities to locate which content is more worthy of time compared to others. Therefore, brain overload effects can be greatly mitigated when individuals are able to acknowledge the importance of appropriate information consumption practices. While experts and researchers proposed a number of techniques to improve your brain’s ability to manage information overload, it is important that you decide which ones are the most effective based on your own experiences in order to reach a satisfactory outcome.