By Murray Waldren
Why our brains hurt
TWO years ago, people in their tens of thousands swamped Kensington Palace with flowers, gifts and grief. A year ago, thousands assembled in memoriam. This week, mourners on the second anniversary of Princess Diana's death numbered in the low hundreds. The "People's Princess", adjudged by international poll as the most popular woman in the world, is fading in popular memory.

There are reasons, of course, not the least being Buckingham Palace's (read the Queen's) decree that "Diana should finally be buried", and a once-sycophantic British press resiling from its "deification of Di" crusade. But the crowd drop-off is a resonant touchstone of temporality, of how quickly today we are distracted. Even from Diana, about whom the term information overload may well have been coined.

Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" catchphrase was once disparaged. It deserves to be again, if only because Andy was guilty of understatement - now we're lucky to have five minutes in the spotlight. The problem is the ever-expanding deluge of news and information we receive in ever-developing mediums. Where information flow was once governed by how quickly we could travel, or the low-tech limitations of smoke signal, flashing mirror or carrier pigeon, our communication and news needs are now instantly gratifiable ... Data is bounced off satellites, delivered along telephone wire and cable, printed at high speed in continually updated newspapers, and it is stored in exponentially growing quantities on film, disk, tape, silicon chip, even old-fashioned paper.

In pre-literate society, ordinary folk might remember, say, the entire Iliad and Odyssey or complex tribal histories even as they lived lives ignorant of events beyond the local. In the Middle Ages, mental "cathedrals", with information filed in mnemonic "rooms", were common for the learned; everything they knew was memorised. Gutenburg's press ended that, just as it catalysed communication. No one advocates a return to pre-press days but as we swirl in a tsunami of electronic accessibility, most of us are barely treading water. What was the natural disaster before the Turkish earthquake? Where was the last famine? Media-packaged wars and calamities merge as our minds grapple with fleeting facts - we are suffering from "social ADD", with compassion fatigue now compassion exhaustion.

New York communication guru Neil Postman has written that "in solving the information problem, we created a new problem: information glut, incoherence and meaninglessness. Where information was once an essential resource in helping us gain control over our physical and symbolic worlds, our technological ingenuity transformed (it) into a form of garbage, and ourselves into garbage collectors. Like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, we are awash in information without even a broom to help us get rid of it."

The Internet term "surfing" is ironically apt in describing our approach to this inundation says Dr John Carr of the Department of Communication Studies at UTS. "We now skim the surface rather than dive deeply. And most of what impacts on our consciousness is essentially irrelevant to us." More importantly, he says, the focus on multiple bites of input "distracts us from the most crucial issue for human beings, our capacity to mutually make meaning. In our grandparents' day, a disaster was usually a local event they could do something about in a practical way. But now, given the global reach of our news, that's not possible - we are concerned, often deeply, but incapable of direct action. There's been a severing of the information/action connection."

Lee Burton, lecturer in Media at RMIT says tabloidisation of the media has created an audience that craves the fast fix. "People become attuned to these news McNuggets," she says, "and need to consume more and more in a desperate attempt to find 'nourishment'. That's impossible when complex ideas are presented on TV in one or two minute lots and newspapers and the Internet eschew analysis for the quick grab. It's a glib approach that makes people tune out from detail."

Harvard University analysis found that the average American network news "sound bite" shortened from 42 seconds in the 1960s to 10 seconds in the late 1980s. Negating this less-is-more approach, recent Australian research shows that immediately after watching TV news, viewers retain barely two minutes' worth of information. "It's as if the news has become the daily injection of cause for concern," says Carr, "without any real intention to remember."

Increasing "noise" from media, technology and the workplace is even stretching the ingenuity of advertising, says Richard Lee, Strategic Planning Director of APL, the challenge being to find a brand "voice" to cut through the clamour. One industry indicator, the MAD index, measures the daily "messages" (from labels, articles, advertisements etc) individuals get. A recent Dutch study found that in 1969 the average consumer received 500 messages; in 1999 that has grown to 5000 plus. Per day, folks. Extrapolate that annually and you begin to see why your brain hurts. Or why attention wanders: nature's self-defence against overload is to blot out all but a fraction of the impressions that blitz us. Which is why advertising focuses on the short and memorable. Thirty years ago, TV ads might run for minutes; now 15 seconds is the norm. And a Sydney company has just broken attention-span ground in creating a vodka campaign centred on one-second TV clips.

Marketing recognised 30 years ago that people developed psychological strategies to cope with the accelerating barrage of conflicting "messages", says Peter Reed, Associate Professor of Marketing at Monash University. "Pieces of information are slotted into the mind in chunks. When the information is retrieved, it tends to be source-less and often not in context." Memory operates via recall, which is conscious, rational remembering, and recognition, which is the "subconscious awareness gained often unawares from songs or jingles, say, and embedded in the emotional part of the brain. One effect of the visual media proliferation is that it is difficult to disentangle reality from fiction, of movie violence from newscasts of killings in Timor, for instance."

To combat our e-mail and electronic overload, we are developing a "dot point approach to daily life," says Hugh Martin, lecturer in Media Studies at LaTrobe University. "Even our conversation is becoming a series of summaries." The secret to survival lies, he says, "not in knowing itself, but in knowing how to access knowledge, in how to develop research capabilities." Otherwise we will founder in an ever-widening but increasingly shallow pool of information.

Alienation and confusion is not just an older generation's failure to keep up. Even within the "push-button generation" educated with computer technology, there are degrees of comfort says Dr John Williams, Senior Lecturer in Technology Education at Perth's Edith Cowan University. "Primary school children have far less fear than senior secondary students at tackling new technology, or accessing its information. Educationally, though, information overload is a very real problem. Part of that is because of a 'more subjects in less depth' approach. Students feel pressured into focusing only on the project at hand. There is no time to follow research byways if they want to keep up. The danger is that thinking patterns will become superficial if teachers don't evolve strategies to develop deeper analytical skills in their students. Otherwise we risk seeing community debate, on political and social issues, becoming more insignificant and even less informed."

Still, a solution may be at hand. Scientists have just created a strain of smart mice by inserting the NR2B gene into their brains. The treated mice learn faster, and remember much longer. Which gives us a choice: either we build more complex traps or we save ourselves by becoming genetically plugged in to solving the information maze.


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1999

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