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Why Brain Overload Happens

We rely on a constant flow of new information, and because of that, brain overload has become an undeniable issue for many. To find a viable solution to the growing problem, it’s important to focus on the root causes.

What Is Brain Overload?

Seven tabs are open on your web browser. Two unread emails alert in your inbox. Your phone buzzes on the desk. Where do you go first and why?

We rely on a constant flow of new information, and because of that, brain overload has become an undeniable issue for many. To find a viable solution to the growing problem, it’s important to focus on the root causes of information overload.

Brain overload, otherwise known as information overload, can be unpacked in a variety of ways. The foremost researcher on the topic, Daniel J. Levitin — a neuroscientist whose research focuses on the intersection of technology, addiction, and productivity — attributed information overload to the amount of multitasking we do in today’s digital age.

He wrote that information excess springs from the human indecision to prioritize tasks and activities. “This uncertainty wreaks havoc with our rapid perceptual categorization system, causes stress, and leads to decision overload.” The human brain, in other words, is in a state of constant distraction. These unending distractions come out of a continuously updating information stream primarily from online communication and social media.

The resulting cognitive overload, according to Levitin’s work, has serious physiological effects on the brain. Because multitasking “has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline,” the human brain is simultaneously overloaded and overstimulated. In addition to the neurological consequences of overload, the psychological effects are just as severe. Levitin contextualized this when he stated that multitasking to the point of brain fatigue leads to “a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.”

The Causes of Information Overload

Brain overload stems from a variety of factors, each of which arises from taking in new information. The mind has a limited capacity for attending to information at any given time and is inclined toward novelty in its environment. The combination of limited attention and seeking originality is problematic in our modern context where rapid exposure to information is ubiquitous through easy access to electronic devices and social media.

Despite the brain’s problematic disposition, brain overload isn’t guaranteed to happen because of an excess of information. According to a Pew Research Center survey titled “Information Overload,” 79% of respondents found that access to many kinds of information gave them a sense of control over their lives. The survey found that certain circumstances — and even certain institutions — can be what trigger the effects of overload. Fifty-six percent of respondents reported higher levels of stress caused by governmental agencies, schools, and banks because of the information gathering processes associated with them.

This data set makes sense considering Levitin’s definitional work. While it seems natural that most Americans would want access to updated and continuous information through their devices — smartphones, personal computers, and tablets — it’s also unsurprising that most respondents associated stress with the different kinds of information they receive. What’s more, a near majority of these respondents reported trouble with keeping up with the information they had access to. As these conditions will only persist as technological innovations continue, we might find solutions to the problem.

How to Deal with Information Overload

Though much research has been conducted on the consequences of cognitive overload, there’s still work left to be done regarding how people can confront its negative effects.

Fast Company weighed in on different strategies that people can employ to help mitigate the detrimental effects of brain fatigue. The four recommended tactics are:

  • Represent tasks in a concrete way: The human brain has a hard-enough time generating, prioritizing, and cataloging to-do lists on its own. So, to help alleviate the pressures from information overload, it’s helpful to organize tasks in a tangible way. The easiest way is to write them down so tasks can be organized critically, where more important projects appear higher on the list and less important activities can be pushed down.
  • Make decisions after a good night’s sleep: The morning can be the best time to make major decisions. Leaving time to determine “important decision-making tasks at the beginning of the day maximizes your brain’s resources and can help you make better decisions.”
  • Clean and organize your space: While this isn’t necessarily exclusive to the workspace, making an office organized can have immense benefits in alleviating brain overload. When clutter piles up, especially in what’s designated as a productive space, the human brain tends to get overwhelmed more quickly.
  • Avoid multitasking: Multitasking “depletes the brain’s glucose supply,” which in turn increases the likelihood of experiencing brain fatigue. As people cycle through different notifications, texts, emails, and other ways of communicating, they’ll have a harder time staying focused and maintaining productivity.

Separately, people can apply these tactics with a comprehensive information literacy strategy. According to Scholarly Information Discovery in the Networked Academic Learning Environment, there are important measures to be taken to improve the way people consume information. While the research focused primarily on first-year college students, the lessons learned about information literacy are universally important and relevant. Further, it made the point that as people are flooded with information in a variety of ways, their ability to discern credible material becomes compromised.

To give people a more critical edge, the article recommended that people engage with information literacy efforts to help distinguish what content is worthy of time, thought, and effort. While this focus may not immediately appear relevant to brain overload, one of the best ways to mitigate its effects is to become more aware of appropriate information consumption practices.

Providing Tactics to Others

Two ideal ways to overcome the stresses of information overload and to provide those tactics to others can both be found in the classroom. An online BS in Business Management or an online BA in Psychology are programs effectively designed to maximize productivity and help alleviate pressure in the face of brain fatigue.

At Lesley University, students are equipped with the necessary tools to engage thoughtfully with issues like cognitive exhaustion in and out of the workplace. As an institution that prepares students for work in private, public, and non-profit sectors, Lesley University helps the leaders of tomorrow focus on and find solutions to today’s problems. As an aspiring entrepreneur with hopes of building a startup, or as a future mental health counselor or specialist, our programs are designed to give you a foundation for success. Explore our program offerings today and start determining which information deserves your critical attention.

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