Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Has the world just gotten to big for our brains?

Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
Our species is defined by the size of our brains and our ability to communicate with one another [1]. The way in which we share knowledge and information has determined how we have evolved. From the most efficient way for a group to gather food to the best models of trade and business, we have always shared our discoveries for “better ways” with our “tribe” in a way that allows all in the group to benefit.

The thing that has changed, over the last couple of generations, is how we store and access that knowledge and information. What really sets apart the 21st century from any previous one is our access, something that is hyper-fast, in comparison with the past.  In my teens I can well remember travelling to my local library in London to search for text on a subject, only to be told that they needed to order in the book I wanted from another library, which would take a few days. Waiting days to read something and then paying to photocopy key pages, was how we lived in the 1960’s. Add to this that the text we were reading was probably quite dated and that the thinking had almost certainly moved on, it was truly a different time.

It is estimated that today we can search something approaching 25% of the knowledge of our species by just typing a search into Wikipedia [2] and probably more if we use Google search, which is currently used around 3.5 Billion times every day [3]. Granted we will have to check the information against other sources to be sure of its authenticity, but even with this, the process still only takes a few minutes.

However it is also estimated that the totality of our human knowledge is doubling at least every 12 months and that this interval is reducing rapidly [4], so the absolute volume of information is continually and inexorably increasing. This is brought into sharp relief by the statement that it is estimated that the daily New York Times contains more information than the average 17th-century Englishman encountered in a lifetime [5].

This morning I boarded my London bound train, switched on my mobile phone “portable hotspot” [6] and connected my laptop to the Internet (my train still does not have free Wi-Fi), within seconds I had vast amounts of data and information at my fingertips. Some of that vast repository is of my own making and is stored “in the cloud” [7]. It is immediately accessible, and no longer do I have to try to remember where I put something, so saving a little brain power for other things such as digesting new information.
I carefully restrict my “input” to levels I can cope with and it is a coping strategy, which works for me. I used to smile when one of my young friends told me that she only read the introduction and conclusion of the large numbers of research papers she was citing in her work, but I think I now understand why.

Today we are able to access, read and share, data, information and hopefully knowledge, quickly and efficiently along with over half of those currently populating our planet [8], but with all this access, how much are we actually able to process?

In 1956 cognitive psychologist George A. Miller [9] published his now famous paper, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information"[10], this is frequently referred to as Miller's Law. In this paper he concludes, “The span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process, and remember.” If this is true, and we are led to believe that it is, then our ability to process information has not changed since that 17th century Englishman, only our ability to gain access it.

This provides us with a quite major problem; if we are limited in our processing power, yet the amount of information we can access immediately, and in many cases simultaneously, is growing exponentially – how do we cope without our internal systems “overloading”? (A phenomenon known as “cognitive overload” [11]).

Solutions to this have been considered [12, 13]. These involve ensuring that we use more than one area within the brain, to effectively “divide the load”, so watching something, while listening to something else, can sometimes help. Many find it useful to make notes while listening to information, as this can aid them in the retention of the information, although the latest thinking suggests that this should be by using a pen and paper and not a laptop [14, 15].

However any efficient solution to the problem relies on our understanding of how the brain processes information and most importantly how we also pass information into our memory so that it can increase our “experience”. Scholars such as Alan Baddeley [16] have considered this in some detail and have produced systemized models of the brain [17]. However for most of us just being aware of this and “thinking about how we think”  [18] at least allows us to understand the limitations and strengths of our human systems and then to find practical ways to deal with this growing problem.

I am writing this article on the same London bound train mentioned above, and I have switched off my news feeds, text alerts, e-mail and social network updates, so that I can concentrate on thinking and writing. I am very much aware of my cognitive limitations having been around since the 1950’s and grown up with this information explosion.

This information explosion [19] we are experiencing will only increase as those connected to the Internet increases and the planetary repository itself expands. However our quite amazing brains, will not change significantly from their current form [20], so we just need to be aware that to function efficiently in this information rich world we must develop personal strategies for building and enriching our personal experience, without overloading our brains.

References used in this article:

  1. Our species is defined by the size of our brains and our ability to communicate  - Sherwood CC, Subiaul F, Zawidzki TW. A natural history of the human mind: tracing evolutionary changes in brain and cognition (2008) -https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2409100/
  2. Wikipedia – All Human Knowledge - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Emijrp/All_human_knowledge 
  3. Google search statistics - http://www.internetlivestats.com/google-search-statistics/ 
  4. Knowledge doubling every 12 months (2013) - http://www.industrytap.com/knowledge-doubling-every-12-months-soon-to-be-every-12-hours/3950
  5. Too much information about information (New York Times - 2011) - http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/too-much-information-about-information/
  6. How to use your smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot: a guide to internet tethering on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry - http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/how-to/mobile-phone/how-use-phone-as-wi-fihotspot-internet-tethering-for-laptop-tablet-3441165/
  7. The big hard drive in the sky (2013) - http://jeffsbuzz.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-big-hard-drive-in-sky.html
  8. Live Internet user numbers - http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/
  9. George A Millar - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Armitage_Miller
  10. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, (George A Miller 1955) - http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/peterson/psy430s2001/Miller GA Magical Seven  Psych Review 1955.pdf
  11. A Few Thoughts on Cognitive Overload, David Kirsh, Dept. of Cognitive Science, Univ. California, San Diego (2000), kirsh@ucsd.edu - http://interactivity.ucsd.edu/articles/Overload/published.html
  12. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning, Richard E. Mayer, Department of Psychology University of California, Santa Barbara (2003) - http://cmapspublic2.ihmc.us/rid=1KXP7KR7M-8N27KG-1FNL/mayer_moreno_2003.pdf
  13. Cognitive Constraints on Multimedia Learning: When Presenting More Material Results in Less Understanding, Richard E. Mayer, Julie Heiser, and Steve Lonn, University of California, Santa Barbara (2001) http://visuallearningresearch.wiki.educ.msu.edu/file/view/Mayer,%20Heiser,%20%26%20Lonn%20(2001).pdf/50533811/Mayer,%20Heiser,%20%26%20Lonn%20(2001).pdf
  14. A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop: Students who used longhand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material, (Cindi May, 2014) - https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/
  15. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, Pam A. Mueller & Daniel M. Oppenheimer (2014) - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261839238_The_Pen_Is_Mightier_Than_the_Keyboard_Advantages_of_Longhand_Over_Laptop_Note_Taking
  16. Alan Baddeley - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Baddeley
  17. A simplified brain model, based on the work of Alan Baddeley (2011) - http://www.jeffsportal.co.uk/FTP/memory_jp.pdf
  18. Thinking about thinking (2011) - http://jeffsbuzz.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/thinking-about-thinking.html
  19. Information explosion - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_explosion
  20. How Has the Human Brain Evolved? (2010) - https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-has-human-brain-evolved/

Image: The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge (by the author)

Digital Object Identifier System - DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.17925.35040 - https://www.doi.org/ 

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