Mental Health

Too much information? Try reading or walking instead

Woman reading a book as she walks in the woods

'Aristotle’s followers were known as the peripatetics, their ideas flowed better while walking' Image: Unsplash

Conrad Hughes
Director General, International School of Geneva
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  • We can only deal with so many pieces of information at once, but today we are faced with an 'infodemic';
  • The problem goes beyond too many work emails: we have stronger information data probes and fewer filters than ever;
  • The benefits of walking and reading could offer a better solution than limiting information access, synthesizing information or relying on institutions and workplaces to respond.

You might have come across this thought experiment: if I throw one ball at you, you catch it and if I throw two balls at you at the same time, you will have just enough time and skill to catch both. If I throw seven balls at you at the same time, however, not only will you not catch all seven, you won’t catch any.

This tells us something very simple: we can only concentrate on a few things at a time.

Have you read?

Our brains are built to relegate most of the information we receive to the subconscious strata of our minds so we can concentrate on what is around us and make sense of it. If we tried to consciously register every tiny detail of information that reached us, we would go out of our minds.

Forgetting is not only natural, it is necessary. This is why in our cognitive architecture, working memory is relatively weak as compared to long-term memory. The purpose of working memory is to sort information and quickly decide what to hold onto and what to store for later use or simply forget. Our psychic energy is limited and we can only deal with so many pieces of information at once (for most people between three to four things).

One of the problems with today’s world is the infodemic, a relentless tsunami of information – some of it false – that batters against our inboxes. Most people working in organizations are aware of the problem which is caused by a perceived need to push out more and more communication without realizing that the attention span and available time of recipients is limited. It becomes impossible to keep abreast of the memos and updates, not to mention the compliance measures and ever-growing bureaucratic tasks to accomplish.

As the sarcastic and quixotic British functionary Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1950s treatise Parkinson's Law points out, bureaucratic creep in organizations is inescapable and, paradoxically, often correlates inversely with productivity. Furthermore, in the age of COVID-19, closed offices and digital communication, many positions can only justify their productivity by competing even more ferociously for email, newsletter, circular and even video messaging space. The employees’ inbox becomes a sort of theatre of successive existential soliloquies played to an unwilling audience who become like Alex, the protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, forced to watch films as part of his 'cure'.

But the problem goes beyond too many work emails, especially when one turns to social media. We have stronger information data probes and fewer filters than ever.

To share knowledge, one can self-publish, promote thoughts through open platforms or simply post directly on social media. Like most things in life, there is a good and bad side to this. The good side is that we can hear many more voices and bypass the restrictive, sometimes politicized gatekeepers of knowledge production, allowing for more spontaneous and diverse expression; the bad side is that what comes out has no stamp of approval or quality control. It can, therefore, range from the opinionated and unsubstantiated to conspiracy theories and total garbage.

Data created on the internet in one minute graphic
Data created on the internet in one minute Image: Statista

Oscar Wilde once said: “[I]n the old days, books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” The quip is wistful, perhaps cruel, but not without truth: everyone has a voice, no one has the time to read everything and what is said can be called into question at any point.

The democratization of knowledge through the web, growing access to information and the increasingly rapid circulation of information make it difficult to keep abreast of things – to put it mildly. Worse still, with the COVID-19 pandemic tying us all to our screens, more is said, more circulates and more is pushed out. As each internet user is able to post, data increases at an untenable pace. The vortex of the internet, that addictive crucible of text and images leaves the head throbbing, eyes stinging and working memory floundering to hold on to any of the multiple threads of endless data.

Is there any light at the end of the infodemic tunnel?

One reaction is to synthesize, hence the 21st-century appetite for sound bites, headlines and high-end summaries. 'Big ideas', 'big history' and TED talks limited to an absolute maximum of 18 minutes; the Gen Z habit of increasing the speed of YouTube tutorials, skipping Netflix introductions and the production of apps that synthesize books into 20-minute digests – these all plunge us into a world of bulimic information consumption.

This trend is problematic. It leads to superficiality and signalling without substance. The more syntheses there are, the more these syntheses become information that needs to be synthesised yet again, a type of mise en abyme of endlessly compacted fractals or a Fibonacci sequence rushing to the origin of a spiral that we will never find unless we arrive at some sort of dull, meaningless monosyllabic platitude.

Another solution is to expect people to email less, to refrain from communicating when it is not necessary and to post less information or to censor it. This isn’t viable: telling people not to communicate is hardly a happy scenario to entertain and who chooses what is said, when and by whom?

There are a number of institutional reactions we might take. These involve pushing for more mindfulness and meditation in the workplace, such as 'no internet days' in the office. But I would argue that the best remedy to the infodemic, which is not going away, requires personal steps that each of us can take, alone and in our families.

There is nothing quite like reading a book, slowly and carefully, from cover to cover. I’m not talking about racing through a number of books in the way that some media claim CEOs do in a year. I mean slow, peaceful recreational reading, especially of the classics. Something by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Vikram Seth, Toni Morisson, Yusanari Kawabata or Ngugi Wa Thiong'o – something with depth.

Much has been written about the extraordinary benefits of reading. Getting children to read out loud has tremendous benefits for their minds and there is something beautiful about a parent reading their children to sleep with a bedtime story, perhaps leaving the listener on a cliffhanger or eager to hear the next chapter the following night. This is not just good for the focus and mindfulness of the child, but the parent too.

There is also nothing quite like going for a walk. Not a walk while you plough through your phone messages, nor a hurried, anxiously deliberate 'health' walk while listening to your earphones. No, a slow walk, perhaps with a significant other or a friend, simply observing life and listening to the sounds about you. A moment of peace and tranquillity. If Aristotle’s followers were known as the peripatetics, it’s because they noticed that their ideas flowed better while walking. One-to-one business meetings and even educational meetings can be done through a walk.

To surf the net, send another e-mail, baulk at our 'to-do list', rush to the next task; or to read, walk and breathe? That is the question. Now that you’ve read this article, close the computer or phone, go for a long walk. When you come back, pick up that book you keep telling yourself you should read and do just that for at least 30 minutes.

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