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Why We're All Overwhelmed Today

It's no wonder: We ask Stone Age brains to manage Digital Age data streams.

We all face the paradox: We want to unplug and push back against modern life’s demands on our time and attention. We want a breather. Yet we continue to flit from task to task and endure countless interruptions while bemoaning time wasted and productivity that could be a lot better.

We say we’re sick of Instagram and Twitter, or that we’re going on a Facebook diet to limit the time we spend staring at screens. Perhaps we’ve promised ourselves that we’re going to delete our accounts altogether.

And yet we don’t.

Tethered to our devices throughout the day we act like an addict, whose defining characteristic is ambivalence. We curse ourselves for getting caught in the loop yet again, which only stresses us more. “What’s the payoff?” we ask, baffled that we act in such a contradictory, self–defeating way.

Logically, there’s no apparent reason why what we say and do are two different things. But because our society prizes rationality and believes that there has to be a reason behind everything, our failure to unplug as we say we want to only heightens our frustration. We have become like lab rats pressing a lever repeatedly, expecting a reward. Except a reward that would mean something never comes.

Is it any wonder we call our daily scurry “the rat race?”

On overload, we lie awake at night, worrying that we’ve grown inefficient and indecisive, poor at prioritizing. Work, relations, and home life are all affected. Public and private compartments no longer exist.

Blame our stone–age brain for this unhappy state.

We have exactly the same brain that our distant ancestors had. Its attention capacity has profound limitations that modern life taxes past its breaking point. We can’t get past this biological limitation either by determination or sheer willpower.

Here is why:

Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years. During 99% of that time, we did little but survive and procreate. Climatic extremes settled down roughly 10,000 years ago, and agriculture began shortly after that. Even 100 years ago, life was far slower, quieter, and less complicated than today.

Eons ago, when not much changed except the seasons, the brain became a change detector meant to be distracted by novelty, or anything out of the ordinary. A sound or a sudden movement could mean a possible threat. Because we have to be ready for anything, our change detectors operate constantly, always on alert. But this eats up a steady portion of the brain’s allotment of power, which in biological terms is also limited and fixed.

Switching attention incurs a high energy cost. And we’re not very good at it, especially when you consider how many items vie for our attention each hour compared to what our ancient brains were made to handle. As an old TV commercial once said, “You can’t fool Mother Nature!” meaning, again, that we can’t get around the Stone Age limits nature has generally imposed on us.

Human brains operate at low speeds of about 120 bits (~15 bytes) per second. By comparison, my Verizon fiber optic connection shoots data into my home at 75 megabytes per second, 5,000 times the rate that my brain can handle. We ask our brains to sort, categorize, parse, and prioritize gargantuan data streams it never evolved to juggle. It should shock us all at how unprepared it is to weigh and navigate the glut of decisions that modern life throws at it.

And yet we continue—overextended, overcommitted, and overwhelmed.

It takes about 60 bits per second to pay attention to one person speaking. That’s half of our allotted bandwidth right there. Simple arithmetic shows why multitasking degrades performance. It tires us out, more than we appreciate, which makes it even harder to sort the trivial from the important.

Attention and memory are the brain’s most precious resources. The other day, I stood in an elevator lobby at my university. The doors opened and about a dozen undergrads spilled out. All stared down at their phones, oblivious to my presence as they bumped and jostled me. The screen lock on their attention created a blind spot that made me invisible, a phenomenon called “inattentional blindness.” This is not a flaw, but a result of how the brain developed: It ignores what isn’t its immediate priority even when it stares it in the face.

Attention is like a sharp-edged spotlight: what lies beyond its perimeter is in our cognitive blind spot. And so by definition we never know what we are missing. As an educator, I worry that modern students, our future leaders, won’t be able to focus, prioritize, delegate, meet deadlines, or see a task through to the end. They already have already ingrained habits that undermine their ability to learn and remember.

Management experts, efficiency specialists, and others have weighed in on the problem of overload. Typically their approach aims to help you juggle all the fire batons and spinning plates you’ve got in the air without losing your breath. They categorize your commitments, structure your to–do lists, and coordinate your commitments.

But no amount of organization can truly address the problem. We already hit overload, 10 or 20 years ago. It’s why all of us are stressed. The obvious solution is to start saying no and have fewer things to juggle in the first place.

More from Richard E. Cytowic M.D.
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