We need an information diet


“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain,” wrote the US writer Nicholas Carr in 2011 after observing strange changes in his behaviour. He was finding it harder and harder to concentrate. Sitting down to read, even only a few pages, was becoming increasingly difficult. It was as if a potent toxin was affecting his neurons – and he was the one injecting himself, day after day.

He wondered if the internet had anything to do with it – whether all those rapid clicks, the accumulation of news and comments and the continuous state of alert was changing our brains.

Whether it’s news, WhatsApp memes, or Facebook and Instagram posts, we currently spend 82 hours a week consuming information online. It’s the first thing we do when we open our eyes in the morning and the last thing we do before going to sleep at night. If we subtract the hours we spend sleeping, 69 per cent of our time is spent consuming information. How are we not getting billed for this?

“We’ve created the need to be constantly informed, to know about everything that’s happening as soon as possible. Processing all of this information causes fatigue because we’re over-exposed, but at the same time it’s making us more and more dependent,” explains neuropsychologist Teresa Ramírez.

All of this new and attractive information – every incoming WhatsApp message, every new email – causes dopamine to be released in our brains, the chemical substance of pleasure. That’s why, even when we’re exhausted, we still need more. We’re information junkies, but we aren’t necessarily better informed than we were before. As Ramírez explains: “There is so much information to manage that I need to be faster in order to digest everything. Most of what we read we only retain for a very short time, and we don’t do it in a conscious way.”

That’s because we don’t read – we scan. We skip over words or look only for those that interest us. We read more but our reading strategies have gotten worse. We either read diagonally or in an F-structure (only the first two lines and the left margin). We want to stay up-to-date but we can’t spend more than ten seconds on the same page. We scan the surface, read only the headlines – and all in order to be faster, to finish as quickly as possible and move on to our next fix.

Our brains can get used to anything

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr writes about neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to generate new synapses and learn new routines through repetition. The same thing has been happening since the invention of writing 5,500 years ago. With each new technology, we further develop certain areas of the brain and become lazier in others. For example, as we began to use maps, our sense of orientation deteriorated and the surface of the hippocampus dedicated to spatial representation decreased. “Brains undergo plastic changes depending on the pressure we subject them to,” says Almudena Capilla, PhD in Neuroscience. Today these “changes” are occurring in the way that we pay attention.

“When we’re overloaded with information, our attention works like a filter. Reading a book traditionally promoted more focused and sustained attention. Our current rapid consumption is leading us to practice a more alternating and selective form of attention. We have to invest a lot of energy into inhibiting distractors,” he adds.

If we practice only one type of attention, we risk the atrophy of another. Similarly, if we only practice anxious reading – skipping around or reading diagonally – we become bored with any text that takes more than three minutes to read. With sufficient repetition, the brain will get used to anything.

Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf calls it “cognitive impatience.” It’s why for many people, reading a long text in one sitting can be torture, and why we continuously interrupt what we’re doing to check our messages. Or why we find it increasingly difficult to remember everything we read.

“Becoming accustomed to superficial reading has implications for the memory,” says Capilla. “The deeper the coding, the more possibilities we have to properly store the information, to relate it to the information we already have and to retrieve it later.” In short, it gives us more tools for interpreting complex issues.

As Aristotle wrote: “The brain tempers the heat and seething of the heart.” But what happens when it grows impatient and forgetful?

Easier targets for manipulation

According to a 2017 Gallup survey, between 38 and 58 per cent of Americans say they find it difficult to stay well-informed despite all of the information at their disposal. Before the internet, it was hard to access relevant information; now, it’s hard to distinguish relevant information from everything else.

“We find emotionally powerful news items right next to trivial ones, but they all appear in the same format. And this is very dangerous. The brain is ultimately unable to take a stance and considers everything in a superficial way,” warns Salvador Martínez, director of the Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante.

Previously, media outlets and journalists set priorities in designing our daily intake of information. But this no longer works in the digital age. “Now our contacts are making us into filters. People use their social media as a filter that gives meaning to the overwhelming amount of information,” says Javier Guallar, a professor of library and information science, and communication at the University of Barcelona.

A majority of Europeans under the age of 30 get their news from social media. Even in countries like France and Spain, where young people name newspapers like Le Monde and El País as their primary source of information, Facebook is cited as the second most trusted option. As Guallar argues, this makes us “an easier target for manipulation.” Our Facebook walls, and increasingly our groups of friends and family on WhatsApp, have become channels for the transmission of false, manipulated and incendiary news. Thirty seven per cent of Europeans say they receive news of this kind every day.

“Fake news has been around for a long time, and propaganda is also nothing new. The difference is that it now reaches more users much more easily,” says Concha Pérez Curiel, professor of political journalism at the University of Seville.

A more superficial type of reading adds to the faith – sometimes blind – that we place in our contacts. This makes us part of these chains, which are more dominated by emotion than reason. “The emotional dimension is innate to human beings, but it now has more weight. There has been massive growth in the role that emotions like indignation, fear and anger play in public and social life,” explains Javier Serrano, a researcher specialising in emotions and the internet.

“Objective facts are less important than appeals to personal beliefs. This is leading us to polarisation and to the fragmentation of our social fabric,” he warns.

Finding a new balance

Faced with the clutter of information available online, many companies are beginning to employ content curators. These ‘professional filters’ are responsible for selecting and contrasting the most relevant news for the whole team. This may be the best solution.

“Everyone needs to be their own content curators,” says Professor Guallar. “They have to learn how to filter, to understand where information comes from and who is behind it.” This applies in particular to people with less experience. Studies have shown that the overabundance of information particularly affects the elderly and those with less education and fewer economic resources.

“Imagine entering a room full of food. If you don’t understand the mechanisms of stimulus regulation, you could eat everything and end up getting sick. The same thing happens with information,” says Gustavo Diex, director of the Nirakara Mindfulness Institute. “Going from a state of fluctuating attention to a more concentrated one is not easy, but it can be learned.”

If you’ve read carefully, you’ll remember: the brain is plastic. “Alternating attention also has its advantages, depending on the type of task we take on,” says Dr Almudena Capilla. “It boosts cognitive flexibility, the ability to change focus, which is good for solving problems. The ideal is to maintain a balance.” In other words: combining quick reading with more concentrated reading, undertaking a conscious and balanced “diet,” and knowing how to stop when you’ve had too much.

Even in the time of Socrates, writing was thought to be a threat to memory. In Johannes Gutenberg’s day in the 1400s, the printing press was attributed to demonic powers. We still don’t know the evolutionary impacts that this technology will have on future generations. But for the time being, we alone are responsible for our brains.

This article has been translated from Spanish.