Information Overload: Brains and Homo Sapiens

We share the brain of our ancestors. The humans of one hundred thousand years ago, as they started migrating from Africa, toted between their ears brains similar to the ones we carry today.[1] The average homo sapiens on the street, with a comparable mental engine to our own, was simply at a different phase in the collective understanding of how things worked. They cut with sharpened stones while we etch with lasers. They hunted and gathered while we order online. They walked while we drive.

Today, we have a different challenge. Rather than make our way with roughhewn tools and limited knowledge, we flounder under an avalanche of information when making decisions. The sources of the information, from social media to corporate advertisers to political campaigns to entertainers, are incented to produce a flood of content, and they do so with a jovial disregard for the implications on our mental or community health. It’s a numbers game that requires capturing and retaining monetizable volumes of eyeballs and attention.

In 1971, Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon wrote, “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” 

“What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Herbert Simon

The implication from Simon’s observation is that the pain of dealing with this information overload falls on us. And we are not well-prepared for the task. We share the scarcity mentality of our ancestors, who scavenged for food and knowledge, while we live lives of relative and absolute abundance. We hoard and consume and struggle to manage inboxes. We stuff offsite storage facilities with so many “precious” belongings that they could furnish a small planet.  We are simply not that good at sifting, sorting, and deleting.

Anything we can do teach our children and ourselves how to filter and capture useful information, to appreciate the fertile nature of how lessons in one area may enhance our ability to understand things in another, the more we advance positive self-care, confidence, and our collective ability to learn. In this way, we prepare our minds for navigating and battling the overwhelming noise of a chaotic world.

In future posts, I will focus on the personal “growth rings” of learning, thinking, and communicating.


[1] S. Neubauer, J.-J. Hublin, P. Gunz, The evolution of modern human brain shape. Science Advances. 4, eaao5961 (2018). Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aao5961

1 Comment

  1. Lawrence B Schiamberg

    August 21, 2022 at 3:17 pm

    Well written discussion of the problem of information overload!

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