“Information Overload” and Productivity

Yesterday, I was interviewed by Ian Jessop of CFAX 1050 Victoria on the topic of “Information Overload and Cognitive Productivity”. We had a good 20-minute chat. Here are some of my reflections on the topic.

Information Overload Myths and Realities

First off, we should address the concept of Information Overload? Despite the fact that it has a substantial Wikipedia entry, it’s not a technical concept in cognitive science. Some cognitive scientists feel the expression should be ditched because it is misleading. It’s not that our buffers are overflowing. I prefer to simply treat the expression as an informal “ballpark concept” to get us thinking about a collection of problems people face in managing and benefiting from information.

My book, Cognitive Productivity can be read as a response to this problem. In the introduction, I respond to Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. I applaud Carr for having popularize issues that many of us in education have been concerned with. However, I criticize the idea that the Internet is changing our brains, which is pessimistic and misleading. As Stephen Pinker pointed out: of course, anything that changes our behavior changes our brain (rather than our liver). But the “rewiring” metaphor is problematic. Carr can’t have his cake and eat it too. If our brains are “plastic”, then we can exploit this plasticity in learning to use information and information technology (IT) productively.

The Cognitive Productivity approach is different. Rather than think of our brains as being passively and hopelessly “rewired” by IT, it’s better to objectively examine the problems and opportunities of modern culture, including IT. To understand this situation, we need to turn to the science of mind whose core metaphor is information processing. That’s cognitive science, which includes not only neuroscience, but also psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and other disciplines. Cognitive Productivity proposes a collection of ways of using IT to become more effective people. This involves changing our information processing strategies and habits. And, yes, these are ultimately under our control, though it’s easy to mindlessly give up this control.

Internet/IT Addiction?

Ian asked me whether some people have an addiction to information and IT. I was cautious in my reply. Psychologists have been studying such “addiction” since before the WWW. In 1990 or 1991, I attended a talk on the subject at the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences of Sussex University (where I was doing a D.Phil.) The presenter described subjects who would spend hours on end in a closet (where his computer was), downloading and using information from the Internet. (Before the WWW, we would use protocols like ftp and gopher to download information).

To answer Ian’s question, I pulled out a definition of addiction (which I instilled, I may add, using a technique I presented in Cognitive Productivity). The definition comes from Aviel Goodman’s 2001 article “What’s in a Name: Terminology for Designating a Syndrome of Driven Sexual Behavior”. An addiction involves:

  1. Recurrent failure to control the behavior.
  2. continuation of the behavior despite substantial harmful consequences

By this definition, many of us are at least in some respects addicted to our IT. Consider distracted driving. Or allowing oneself to repeatedly be distracted by a smartphone while trying to accomplish a more urgent and important task. Or compulsively checking the news or one’s email when the rationally “expected utility” of this behavior is low or negative (i.e., overall harmful). The adverse effects might be failing to complete a task, needing to work late, forgoing exercise, etc.

I don’t particularly care to get into a debate here about what “addiction” truly means. However, Goodman’s concept is apposite. If you’re interested in addictive behaviors, I would recommend Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts as a starting point.

Do Not Disturb

In the course of the interview, we discussed IT interrupts (notifications). I noted that before the iPad was announced, I wrote a blog post for SharpBrains containing a wish list for Apple’s long anticipated tablet. One of the items I wished for was a global mute button. About a week after the iPad was officially announced, I wrote another blog post for SharpBrains, this one assessing the iPad against my criteria. (I then had a little email exchange with Steve Jobs on the subject.)

Apple later introduced a “Do Not Disturb” feature. You can turn off most of your Mac’s, iPhone or iPad’s notifications off using this feature. I strongly recommend familiarizing oneself with this feature.

Ian Jessop wondered whether Buddha would have developed his wisdom had he been born in the Age of Information. I speculated that he would have tamed IT and led the way to a sane relationship with it. In fact, my Buddhist friends have a balanced relationship to IT/information (as one would expect). Balance in Buddhism involves not being overly drawn to an object, nor being overly repulsed by it. (It applies to all kinds of pleasurable and painful stimuli.) Our graphic designer, my friend, Lam Wong, is very knowledgeable about Buddhist practices. Sometimes he doesn’t respond to my emails for a few days, citing a break from IT. Certainly, meditation is also a helpful practice. Arian Huffington’s book, Thrive, is loaded with suggestions for containing IT. (Coincidentally, the CogZest slogan is “Thrive in the sea of knowledge”.)

Ian asked me whether we should strive for solitude. This reminded me of something Nelson Mandela said late in life, which I quoted in Cognitive Productivity:

[Nelson Mandela] actually said sometimes in the later years that he missed prison. I would say, ‘how could you think that?’ but he would say that at least in prison he had time to think. He was so overwhelmed by the world, he found it very difficult to have quiet time to just think and contemplate things.
Zelda la Grange

The literature on learning and expertise is clear that in order to progress, we need to focus our attention (Merlin Donald would say, “our consciousness”). That often calls for solitude. I review related expertise literature in Cognitive Productivity.

How to Thrive (Rather than Drown) in the Sea of Knowledge

Ian asked me for some tips for productively managing information. We didn’t have time to delve very deeply into solutions. I provided a few suggestions, most of which are described in Cognitive Productivity.

Aside on the Romantic Grief Research Project

I alluded to my romantic grief research project in the interview. Ian expressed a lot of interest in this project (considering the high percentage of romantic relationships that blow up) and he invited me to return to the show to discuss it.

Why the Romantic Grief project?

  • To understand the mind we need to understand not only dry cognition, but emotion (and more generally “affect”, which also includes moods, attitudes and motivation). That’s why I named this site “CogZest”.
  • I have a longstanding research interest in emotion: My Ph.D. thesis was part of the cognition and affect.
  • The theory of insomnia I proposed (and continue to develop) attributes an important role to emotion (often insomnia is due to perturbance); moreover, the “cognitive shuffle” (a technique I developed) is a new emotion regulation strategy.
  • Romantic grief is a relatively “pure” emotion.
  • Romantic grief involves a “perturbance”, a state that involves “motivators” that insistently disrupt attention (e.g., “intrusive thinking”).
  • Emotions can disrupt cognitive productivity (which is a core of CogZest).

The Romantic Grief project is only theoretical at this point, meaning I haven’t collected new empirical data yet. It aims to develop a better understanding of affect, and to develop and assess solutions to regulate emotions.


Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest.
Author of Cognitive Productivity .
Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker.
Adjunct Professor of Education & Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science, Simon Fraser University
Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp.
See About Me for more information.

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