Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Brain overload

Perhaps the most important report in a newspaper today is a piece in The Daily Telegraph headed: "24-hour news streams and constant Twitter updates causing brain overload".

The importance does not stem from any topical immediacy but in explaining, in part at least, what is happening in politics today – more specifically why it is happening.

The piece describes work by Professor Dilip Jeste in the current edition of Archives of General Psychiatry - and other work in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - telling us that digital advancements feeding a 24-hour news culture could be starting to move too quickly for the human brain and causing it to overload.

To give it a contemporary edge, Jeste refers to "constant emails, news alerts, and Twitter updates" which are contributing to numbing our brains and outpacing our neurons' processing capabilities. The combined research shows that our reactions to traumatic news stories are becoming increasingly flippant as our minds are trying to seek comfort in the simpler things that cause no stress or provoke a need for analysis.

The research has found this overload may also be causing increasing levels of depression and the quicker we know about events, the less it seems to be sinking in and having the expected effect.

This seems to be very much a physical effect, in that the neurones associated with traits such as human wisdom or empathy, are sited in the slower acting, recently evolved regions of our brain. They are bypassed when the world feels stressful. The tendency is for our primitive survival instinct to take over and dictate behaviour.

Thus, the constant bombardment of news outstrips our abilities to digest the facts, match it with appropriate reactions and then behave accordingly.

What is not stated in the research – but merits special study – is the fact that one of the groups most exposed to this phenomenon is the politicians – and especially MPs. And it is not only the electronic media – it is the whole rush of information from diverse sources.

We ruminated on this last year, remarking that, in the hothouse of Westminster, there is simply no opportunity to pause and reflect. Our politicians are deprived of the time and space they need to take stock and think things through.

What this research seems to do, therefore, is put scientific clothes on what we have called the "bubble effect" where MPs in that very peculiar and stressful environment are entirely dysfunctional for a reason. We are not designed, as human beings, to cope with what they have to deal with.

Not least, this might explain the "Iain Dale syndrome" where reactions ... are becoming increasingly flippant (or lightweight) as "our minds are trying to seek comfort in the simpler things that cause no stress or provoke a need for analysis." Hence, you see the tendency to avoid hard-edged issues and retreat into the soap opera of politics, focusing on the tat, the personalities and the theatre. It is perhaps not surprising that so many of the claque are devotees of Twitter.

I have written to Prof Jeste with some observations, and hope he will respond – and will keep you posted if he does. But, if he and his colleagues are half way right about the effects of "brain overload", we have to think very hard about how our MPs work, what we ask of them and how they manage their affairs.

If we are actually asking of human beings more than they can deliver, then we should not be surprised if they fail to perform as expected.