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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November 2003, 15:00 GMT
Reclaim your brain
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

More information has been produced and stored in the past five years, than at any time in human history. E-mails, text messages, mobile phone calls, TV, websites. We are drowning in the stuff. But how much of it has added to the sum of human knowledge? And has anyone thought what it is doing to our brains?

Researchers from the University of California estimate that 800MB of new information is produced and stored each year for every member of the human race.

What's in your 800MB?
92% is information stored on magnetic media. The vast majority is held on computer hard drives as well as audio and video tapes
7.75% is photographs and films
0.03% is on paper, including books, newspapers and magazines - this has increased by 36% since 1999, largely due to people printing computer documents
0.001% Optical storage media such as CDs and DVDs
That is double the amount produced just three years ago - and is the equivalent of two floppy disks per day for every man, woman and child on the planet.

This massive explosion in information has arguably empowered millions, transforming them from passive consumers of culture into active participants in a 24 hour global debate.

But others claim that when the fog of new data has cleared we will be left with very little in the way of new knowledge or understanding.

"I think you are going to see more rapid production of further information," says Keith Kendrick, head of neuroscience at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge.

I don't think creativity will disappear entirely, but it has become a world of expertise
Keith Kendrick
"What you might not necessarily see is the answers to the really big questions."

In science, Professor Kendrick says, the vast amounts of information researchers now have to wade through means they are focusing on ever-smaller areas of expertise.

As a result, there are fewer "big thinkers". It has become harder to see the bigger picture, because it has simply become too big.

And, he argues, if your ideas are constantly reviewed against everyone else's, there is arguably less room for idiosyncratic and original thinking.

"I don't think creativity will disappear entirely, but it has become a world of expertise in a more limited field.

"The big thinkers who try to make sense of a whole area of science are fairly rare."

Commercial noise

The marketing industry is often blamed for the increase in cultural background noise and unwanted information.

Opinion is divided as to how many commercial messages a person is exposed in a single day. Recent research in the US said it could be as many as 2,500.

Charles Darwin
Will the information age produce a new Darwin?
"We have absolutely no idea what this constant advertising babble is doing to us," Kalle Lasn, founder of anti-commercial group Adbusters has said.

"The situation is similar to what we were experiencing at the start of the environmental movement 40 years ago, when people just didn't want to believe that three parts per billion of some chemical in the air or water could be toxic and have all kinds of unforeseen consequences down the road.

"Today we are repeating that same mistake in our mental environment."

Adbusters, which is best known for its sophisticated spoofs, such as its Joe Chemo - a swipe at Camel cigarettes - campaigns against what it calls the "corporate colonisation of the mind".

It encourages "culture jamming", small acts of defiance against encroaching commercialism, such as asking for the home phone number of telesales callers or returning faxed or e-mailed ads to their senders.

Valuable brain space

The group also holds an annual Turn-off TV Week, although it claims a 15 second "uncommercial" for the event was rejected by most of the country's television networks.

Other groups, such as Commercial Alert, are campaigning for a ban on selling naming rights to public spaces and the commercialisation of health care, education and culture.

But Professor Kendrick casts doubt on the idea that all the extra information in the world is using up valuable brain space.

Apart from anything else, the brain does not necessarily have a finite capacity.

"The potential for the brain to memorise is enormous. No one wants to put a final limit on it," he says.

The mind does not store information in a cold, clinical way like a computer. Memory is strongly linked to emotion.

So although we are bombarded with information all the time, we are unlikely to remember much of it.

The problem is not the amount of information you take in, but what your brain does with it, Professor Kendrick says.

"Trying to take in lots of information and organising it in such a way that you can bring it back in the right way, at the right time, is quite a problem.

"We have got so much information now that you are likely to overload your own personal capacity."

'Emotional euphoria'

People have had to learn how to cut through the "noise", selecting what is relevant and what is not.

"You have to be able to gloss over information extremely fast, instead of dealing with everything in phenomenal detail."

The effort that used to be involved in researching a subject, Professor Kendrick argues, meant strong emotions were associated with it, making it stick in the mind.

"If you find it hard to get information it sticks. Before the internet came along, just the achievement of finding out something was an emotional euphoria all by itself."

It's a sobering thought. But will you remember it tomorrow?

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

There has been an enormous amount of information available for centuries, increasing vastly in the last 150 years. Admittedly this has not been in an electronic format but in the form of newsprint, books, photographs, radio, TV. And up until now no one's brain has exploded as we're well adapted to ignoring the huge amount of useless information that we're surrounded by every day.
John Cahill, UK

I can just see it, 50 years from now, emblazoned across the sky in mile high lettering (Arial, 50,000,000 pt) "Today's sunset was brought to you by BIGCORP plc and the weather was controlled by WEATHERCORP inc - we hope you tune in to EARTH.COM tomorrow for some pleasant afternoon sunshine followed by a light shower". I've recently ditched my mobile phone in an effort to 'get away' from information overload - I don't want to be contactable 24x7 and I certainly DON'T want mobile spam.
Simon Mills, UK

The massive increase of information we have to process is a problem. However the real damage is being done to children who are growing up pre-programmed into certain brands and ideals. Their information filters are not as sophisticated as adults. We live in a time where everything has a dollar sign attached to it by ad-men and marketing consultants. We now spend so much time processing adverts and thinking what we want, we are forgetting others.
Robin, UK

How a brain that evolved on the plains of Africa copes with the increasing sophistication of verbal and written perceptions of our world has yet to be seen. Happiness indexes constantly show we are no more happier than 50 years ago, so this data doesn't seem to be improving our lives. We need to be taught how to filter this information, using emotional tools to remember the stuff that really matters, moral ways to live and the like, not what the recent 2 for 1 offer down the supermarket is.
Ben, England

Like stress, there is a good level information - that is, enough to allow us to function proactively, make quick rational decisions, and support a level of multi-tasking. Too much information is increasingly detrimental to our effectiveness and a reactive or passive behaviour results. I worry for my children who risk having their individuality and creativity suppressed at an early age. I can still remember making my own entertainment - for them a natural reaction to a lull in life will be to turn-on whatever, log-in to something, switch into receive mode!

The point that "Memory is strongly linked to emotion" is interesting - advertisers know this and this is exactly why they increasingly resort to shock tactics. They're competing to shriek above their own racket like noisy schoolchildren. What possible good does all-pervading "ambient" advertising do for society? If I want information, I'll get it myself, thanks.
Ben, UK

I think one of the most vital talents or skills a human being can have in the modern world is being able to sift out what is important from what is not from the sea of facts and figures we have before us. Can this ability be taught? I think it can and that we should start teaching it to kids now.
Mick, UK

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