Your Brain on Digital Data

First, a few disclosures. I make my living as an analyst. This is why the content that occasionally makes its way onto this site is a bit, well…analytical. I’m also a neuroscience geek who thinks that interviewing brain scientists is a lot of fun. This is why I will sometimes include topic areas that touch on the inner game of health and fitness – especially evolutionary or “primal” fitness.

But the overall goal of Open Water Chicago remains consistent – namely, to provide you with valuable information to optimize your overall health, and to inspire you to swim outdoors (hopefully at Ladder #1). And while at times these posts may seem tangential, they are ultimately produced with these ends in mind.

So now to today’s piece…

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Your Brain on Digital Data

Nature has provided us with an advanced frontal cortex which gives us an extraordinary capacity to simultaneously take in, process, and make sense of all sorts of data emanating from our immediate environment. In other words, we are better equipped than lower mammals to analyze what’s happening in the present moment and to make changes in our behaviors based upon expected or desired future outcomes.

This critical advantage has enabled us humans to literally predict and shape our futures, thereby achieving a complete dominion over all other sentient species. However, our analytical and predicative prowess has historically been rooted in our ability to gather and find meaning in sensory data from our immediate physical environment.

Fast forward to 2010, and we see a completely different scenario.

Most of us reside in a world defined by several structured layers of comfort, security, and predictability, and a great deal of our human experience involves interacting not with real-world sensory data, but with artificial “digital” data. And digital data is highly sanitized information that’s been truncated or rounded into neat little “bits” that line up perfectly in a digital medium such as a computer screen, a smart phone, or a television set.

The problem is that the human brain is not designed to process information in such neat and perfect little bits.

Instead, our advanced cortices evolved to take in and to make sense of highly dynamic – and often quite chaotic – sensory input from our natural environment. And the only way to thrive in this setting would be to effectively filter out the useless sensory “noise” in favor of those essential nuggets of imperfect data that could mean the difference between surviving or not surviving.

Which brings us to our current dilemma. We have fallible, imperfect brains that evolved to pare down imperfect data – but we’re constantly trying to process and find meaning in limitless amounts of essentially perfect digital data.

Is it any wonder that people are overwhelmed these days?

The key is, at a fundamental level your brain is hardwired to filter out any data that isn’t essential to your immediate survival. And contrary to what you might think, most of your e-mail exchanges, text messages, and Twitter streams have no impact whatsoever on whether or not you will survive and thrive as a human. Conversely, most of it is just neatly packaged but mostly useless artificial “noise” that serves little purpose other than to overwhelm your brain.

Remember, data overload leads to paralysis. And “back in the day” paralysis led to extinction.

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