What is information overload? Do I need to be afraid of it?

A few posts back I mentioned that I have been getting frequent headaches that I believed were from the excessive amount of time I spend in the warm glow of my laptop. I thought that even before my leg was seared to the bone (a 6th degree burn) by the battery, my brain would slowly boil over in my skull from the constant assault on my ever-worsening eyesight. I will admit that I spend a tad bit more time staring at my laptop than I should. All that time reading this tiny screen one foot away must cause a physiological reaction, right? These symptoms can’t be the result of stress and a mounting mental deluge.

However, I read a post today that made me think twice about my hypothesis. What if it isn’t my weakened eyes straining to make sense of randomly flaring pixels that is the problem? What if it’s INFORMATION OVERLOAD?

I glance over at least a few hundred blog posts a day on my google reader. Today one of them was a fairly innocuous list about How to be a Stress-free Web Worker. It cites a “low-information diet” as one way to reduce stress in one’s life. That got me thinking about how much stuff I read in a single day. It’s not just my feed. I troll social aggregators, news sites, visit webcomics, and look for new blogs everyday. This doesn’t even count the research I put into articles or other assignments. I thought about all the stuff I try to cram into my head.

Then, in an effort to ignore my nagging feeling about this, I watched a presentation on “cognitive surplus” and how humans deal with free time. He mentioned that people are spending less time zoning out in front of the TV and more time contributing to society by editing Wikipedia. He called TV a heat sink that wastes many millions of hours of brainpower. The speaker was trying to give this all a good spin, but I realized something: I really need to unplug for a few hours. My headaches have been occurring earlier and earlier in the day, but I’ve been popping Excedrin and staying on the lappy into the late evening. Sure, I have a lot of work to do this and next week, but if I don’t spend the occasional night sitting on my patio looking at the stars or cooking a simple meal and cleaning up with my husband, the information I collect ends up in a useless pile of strung-out meat. Why am I learning this stuff if I’m not going to utilize it?

I think I may go drink some Victory Gin and play some vidya. At least then I can come back to my work without a throbbing headache.


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