Feeding the Right Beast: A Healthy Information Diet?

 

There is a First Nations story that has been told to me many times and, like many good stories, it inspires some important thinking. The story goes like this (shared by First People):

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

(Alternative versions of the story are here and I’m sure elsewhere as they told over again in the great oral traditions of First Nations communities)

When we open our laptop, switch on our iPhone or Blackberry (assuming they ever are off in the first place), turn on TV or even listen to a story told by a colleague in the hallway at the office or from a friend or relative on the phone, we are taking in information. And with mobile technologies and social media we are taking in a lot more than ever before. Today the annual consumer electronics show starts in Las Vegas and front-and-centre will be new tools to help deliver more information faster to more people. The pot gets bigger all the time.

We are not starved for information, rather we might very well becoming informationally obese. And just like with food, what we feed on and how much matters to our health — certainly to our ability to make healthy decisions. A recently published study on consumer behaviour shows that too little or too much information stifles decision making. An entire body of research has shown that we can only reasonably pay attention to very few things at once, squashing the myth of multi-tasking as a means of being productive.

Research and the story above illustrate the importance of being mindful of what we consume and how, when and how much of it we take in. While millions will create new years resolutions that will focus on the food they eat, we might want to consider paying more attention to our information diets as well.  Jonah Lehrer’s WSJ health article I cited in my last post refers to work done at Stanford University which brings this all together by looking at information quantity,  decision making, and diet:

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza. (In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce measures of self-control, as all the stimuli stressed out the cortex.) A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.

So while we feed our brain, we also might be priming ourselves to feed our body. Like most things, quantity and quality matter. Next time you open the laptop or look at your Blackberry, take a moment to pause and ask yourself: What are you feeding your brain today? And is that diet a healthy one?

4 Comments on “Feeding the Right Beast: A Healthy Information Diet?

  1. I’m definitely on a information diet. Trimmed down my podcasts, now going to move on to the RSS feeds, and finally to my schedule. Taking in more by taking in less.
    Rob

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