Your brain's handy shortcuts weren't built for today's informational diet.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that you haven’t touched a hot stove on purpose lately, just to see what it feels like. Not only do you already know all you need to know about that, you also probably learned it without ever having to experience it first-hand. (Get it? Sorry.)

Humans’ capacity for storytelling and inference sets us apart from other species maybe more than any other characteristic -- at least in terms of what’s allowed us to dominate the animal kingdom. By developing the capacity for storytelling, we were able to organize ourselves across generations long before the advent of the written word. 

Writing eventually came along and gave us a much more robust way of storing information but, before that, stories handed down verbally were our way of packaging and retaining lessons that were important for the survival and thriving of our species. It’s what made it so that each new generation didn’t have to start from scratch in figuring things out -- we got to accumulate knowledge over time, which is the process we know as human progress.

So your ability to absorb information and apply it by inference (this hot element is like that other one my parents once warned me not to touch) is one of the great built-in perks of being human, and a super useful one at that. You use it a thousand times a day to make automatic decisions about what and what not to do based on lessons and patterns that have been encoded into your subconscious. Good thing, too. Having to make every decision consciously -- about what to eat, what to wear, how to behave etc. -- would be exhausting… if it didn’t also mean that you’d have been dead a long time ago. You get the picture.

Now, here’s the downside: I think we may have reached a point in human history where this capacity for storytelling and pattern recognition is finally working against us to some extent.


Information overload.

I imagine that for the majority of human history -- that is, up until industrialization really got going -- your average human consumed about the same amount of information in a day as everyone before them, give or take. Notwithstanding the invention of books etc., to be human in a tribal or agrarian society was to mostly learn about the world according to what you could see, hear and touch around you.

Our information diet would have ticked up -- at least among city dwellers -- with industrialization and urbanization, the proliferation of print media, rising population density etc. To live in this new era meant daily exposure to a fair bit more raw data than everyone before you. 

Things went along like this for a while, trending upward, then accelerating -- first with radio, then television. Okay, still manageable...

And then...the internet. Kaboom.

This article from 2009 quotes a study suggesting that at that point, humans were consuming 350% more information in a day than they had three decades prior. And I’d guess that if someone were to conduct a follow-up study, they’d find more of the same in the dozen years since. With the explosion of smartphones, broadband and social media, there’s zero doubt that we’re now consuming information at a (far) faster rate than at any prior point in human history. 

(As one example, just think about the pace of the news cycle: if something major happened in the world right this minute and you didn’t find out about it until tomorrow morning, your first response would likely be to feel totally baffled as to how you missed the news for so long. We’ve come a long way from just a few decades ago when that would have been a totally normal experience.)

Back to our capacity for storytelling and inference: while our hunter-gatherer, pre-Wikipedia ancestors no doubt had a lot to keep track of, the sheer volume of data we’re bombarded with today is like nothing they ever saw. So if their brains evolved to take shortcuts in processing, what happens when you crank the informational noise up to deafening levels -- 10, 50 or 100 times more… stuff… coming at us now than we used to have? 

Well, your brain does the same thing it’s always done: the best that it can.

Stories, patterns and inferences are all the more essential tools for processing, now that we’ve not so much cranked the info-volume knob up as we have snapped it off entirely. Your brain’s subconscious models for recognition, interpretation and decision-making are in constant overdrive, trying to make sense of it all -- and damn sure cutting as many corners as possible in order to keep up.

Where the rubber meets the road is: to a person, and now more than ever, humans experience not the world itself, but our individual perceptions of it -- perceptions that are the result of functionally infinite data processed through a million cognitive filters.

In practice, this means that our fears, assumptions and certainties are often based on some really striking mental shortcuts. In 2021, you can tell someone about a person’s willingness to wear a cloth mask when they go to the store, and -- based on that single piece of information -- they’ll be able to tell you 100 other things that must also be true about that person. 

To be clear, an ‘us-vs-them’ mindset is nothing new: tribalism and political polarization have been a thing since people were throwing spears at each other. What is new today, though, is this sort of hyper extrapolation that just wasn’t a thing before the twitterization of the world. My human need to dumb things down used to mean that I only needed to know your political affiliation (or other group identity) before I knew “everything” about you. Now? I just need to know one thing about you to draw similar conclusions. Not a specific thing. Just, really, any one thing from a long list of telltale signs that you’re... a good guy or a bad guy.

I’m sure there are a bunch of reasons for how we got here, but I’d chalk at least part of it up to the fact that there’s just too damn much information. If our ancestors informational diet was the equivalent of a novel, ours is a library. To make sense of it all, our brains have no choice but to make summary notes about the novels, then summary notes about the summary notes until -- pretty soon -- well, “judging a book by its cover” and all that...

What to do about it? At a societal level… who knows? But individually? Start by giving yourself a break: you don’t need to know it all. In fact, you couldn’t if you wanted to. So instead of buying into a modern political culture that demands that everyone have an opinion and proclaim it loudly, recognize that sometimes the most honest available answer is... “I don’t know.” 

When it comes to other people, observe that your brain has a bias toward painting the “not like me” crowd with a single brush. Your instincts will tell you that while you’re a creature of great nuance and intricacy, those other people with different ideas are somehow all alike. Just intuitively, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? So cutting your brain some slack also means trying, while you’re at it, to give other people the benefit of the doubt.

In other words, recognize that your autopilot system was designed for very different conditions than the ones we live in. Use it to your advantage when you can, but otherwise be mindful of the (informational) storm. You might need to take control from time to time.