Written by Debra Alper
It’s hard to pause at all these days, without someone or something competing for our attention. Whether it’s the ‘ding’ of new emails beckoning from our inbox, or calls from candidates vying for our vote, the information comes at a quick and constant clip. All will agree that life moves quickly these days. There seems to be so much more to know, and so many more ways to learn it. But what happens when we are exposed to more information than we can possibly process at one time? Is there a point at which the barrage of intel actually creates deleterious effects?
Often referred to as “cognitive overload,” neuroscientists explain that the form in which stimuli are presented impacts our brains’ ability to process them. For example, imagine yourself on a leisurely stroll through Central Park. You absorb countless stimuli, as your eyes witness the changing leaves of fall, ears hear them crunching beneath your feet, and your skin feels the cool air rushing by as the wind grows stronger. Now counter this image with one of you standing in the middle of Times Square. When the lights and sounds around you seem to come in an uncontrolled and furious manner, our minds are hardly able to sort through it all, and the feeling of overstimulation results. Individuals may differ in terms of how much is too much. But when one does experience an overload of cognitive or sensory input, stress, indecisiveness, and what researches term “analysis paralysis” often follows. In other words, when faced with so much to attend to and consider, our brains literally freeze. Rather than wade through it all, we temporarily opt to focus on none of it at all. When cognitive overload is a chronic state, one common side effect is anxiety and a sense that we cannot meet the demands imposed upon us.
Fortunately, psychologists and neuroscientists offer some tips on how to wade through an information overload:
- Take breaks! This may seem like an obvious tip, but it is so often neglected. Taking breaks away from your computer, your phone, or whatever is the source of your analysis paralysis can help you regroup and recognize what is truly important information. When you focus on smaller, more important pieces of information and disregard the extraneous “noise,” you are in a better position to make focused, informed decisions.
- Set limits. Setting limits on how much TV you’ll watch, how much news you’ll read, when you will and won’t check email, and how many sources of sensory input you’ll expose yourself to, makes it less likely that cognitive overload will be a chronic problem for you.
- Exercise control. One significant source of stress is the feeling that we are passive receivers, unable to control the wave of information coming at us at any time. To reclaim some control, one can actively chose to filter out unnecessary and unwanted stimuli. Whether this means turning off your phone, lowering your shades, or physically removing yourself from overwhelming situations, opt to play an active role in determining what information and experiences you allow into your world.
No matter the particular technique you employ, taking an occasional pause from the stream of information around us can go a long way toward keeping us agile and ready to take on the world!