• Robb G. Best

Your brain probably needs to go on an information diet

Let's talk about diet.

No, I'm not going to lecture you on your food choices this week. This blog entry is designed to make everybody feel a little crummy (I mean enlightened), regardless of the contents of your fridge.

This is a story about what you're feeding to your brain--your information diet, if you will. In The Information Diet: a case for conscious consumption, Clay Johnson likens the explosion of information technoligies to the industrialization of the food business.

“Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar — the stuff that people crave — media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?” In other words, we consume at the mercy of our confirmation bias.

Johnson’s premise is that, despite the hype, we don’t suffer from information overload. Our consumption decisions are built around habit and availability. Many of us find ourselves in situations where we're drawn to junk food--or, following Johnson’ metaphor, junk information.

Our eyes and ears are gobbling information from the time that we wake up until we fall into bed, dazed and overwhelmed. We crave a steady diet of tweets, emails, videos, web sites, magazines, blogs, (yikes!) and television programs of every shape and size without stopping to evaluate the mental value delivered to our astonishing-yet-finite processing center known as the brain. Your brain's 60 watts of power were never designed for this.

Johnson’s advocacy is to think about information in the same way you might consider lunch. You know a salad is much healthier than the fries that are whispering your name, and so you must overcome the temptation and become more selective. Meditation has been shown to ‘defrag’ the brain from the random information bits it’s flooded with every day.

You can help yourself even more by being thoughtful and intentional with your information consumption in the first place. Is it really important to know what Ashton Kutcher had for breakfast? That reality show about people that run into each other with heavy industrial equipment (I made that up, I hope) is the equivalent to your overworked brain on a Twinkie sundae. Simply step away from the remote and recognize that Billy Bob’s giant tractor victory doesn’t really impact your life in a meaningful way.

There was a brief time in history, prior to the printing press, where a learned person could have theoretically availed himself or herself of virtually all the written text in the world. That day has long passed from our rearview mirrors. We have moved beyond the quest for practical and applicable information into a land of gluttony where it increasingly becomes more difficult to separate the signal from the noise.

Johnson points out that since you can’t escape the flood of information deluging you every day, taking a second and evaluating before you begin to mentally chow down is a far healthier and more productive way to live your life. Of course he’s right, but putting yourself on any kind of diet, let alone an information diet, is easier said than done, which is why, sadly, electronic billboards and the producers who brought us Honey Boo Boo aren’t going away anytime soon.

Maybe somebody should invent the equivalent of a calorie counter, a sort of frivolity-meter, so we could track our junk information intake. In the meantime, can someone please pass me a mental toothpick?

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