Teaching your brain to ignore?

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The other day I was thinking about the amount of new information that comes at us daily compared with, say, 200 years ago. Today with the internet, online news and social media, much more information comes at us than our ancestors experienced.

Our brains automatically ignore things we judge to be irrelevant to our current situation, which frees our minds up to pay attention to the things that matter. We don’t need to respond to every stimulus; our brains can only handle so much input at a time.

2oo years ago, our ancestors had to ignore certain things too. They didn’t need to tune in to every sound of hoofbeats outside or the rooster crowing. They were able to focus on reading books or the newspaper, and talking to each other.

Reading books, newspapers and letters, and spoken conversations were the main methods of information input, and only so much information could come via those means in a day. Compare that with today, where an infinite amount of information can come your way daily via the internet, television and radio.

I wondered what that does to people’s brains. There is evidence showing that people’s attention spans are shorter than they were in years past due to the instant information available by clicking through links. I have an idea of the mechanism behind this:

We are teaching our brains to ignore information, not to absorb it.

Think about it: back in the olden days, people had time to take in the information presented to them, and had time to think about it. Mental processing took place, ideas took shape. People’s brains learned how to absorb information and process it.

Now, just a few minutes on Facebook is a lesson in ignoring. Cat videos, news stories, photos of someone’s meal, questions, answers, stories, pictures. Most of it is not directly relevant to me, so it washes over me and is forgotten. My brain isn’t learning to absorb and process information, it’s learning to ignore and forget.

Now that I have realized this is what’s going on, I want to teach my brain to absorb and process again. I want to read more books and fewer news bites. I want more meaningful conversations with people I know and less random interaction with lots of people I don’t know. I want to take the time to absorb the information that is relevant to me, and process my thoughts about it.

What do you think about the idea that today’s rapid influx of information is teaching our brains to ignore the majority of information that comes our way?

3 thoughts on “Teaching your brain to ignore?

  1. Tim was unable to post a comment so he asked me to post this on his behalf. Thank you for your thoughtful comment Tim!

    You’ve raised a very interesting theory. I don’t quite go back 200 years but I did spend a lot of time as a child with my grandparents who lived in the country (on the Welsh border) and born in the 1880’s. My grandma certainly didn’t have more time! She was up by 6am and grew all her own fruit and vegetables, kept livestock and collected her own eggs. All meals were prepared from scratch and cooked slowly in a coal fired range oven – lit each morning – even in summer – and which was the only heat in her cottage. She even had to pump her water from a well into a bucket!

    When grandma did stop for a break (usually about 3 o’clock with a massive mug of English tea) she had already selected what she was going to read – a good broadsheet national newspaper, the weekly county journal and special attention to letters from relatives (which would be read more than once to ensure nothing had been missed!). She made a note of things (in one place!) that she needed to prioritise and schedule and never allowed herself to be overloaded with irrelevant material (gossipy magazines or junk mail) in the way we allow ourselves today.

    I think it’s the fear of “missing something” that causes us to skim read (and – as you say – train ourself to largely ignore) the huge amount of drivel that we allow to invade our lives. In reality, we are MORE LIKELY to miss something important as – several times a day – we hurriedly skip through this ever re-appearing mountain of stuff!

    Grandma was always up-to-date on important things happening in her family, in her locality, nationally and internationally. She was much more able to plan her schedule and get things done than many of us are today.

  2. I found using internet a day more exhausting than a 10km walk. Never thought ignoring information can be that tiring. Thanks Laurie with your thoughts, I’ll see information another way now

  3. On my task list for today: accept that anything truly important will make it to my attention anyway and pare down the number of feeds in my RSS reader by 50%.

    Thank you for thinking about thought, and I’d love to know how this goes for you and how to find more deep thought in my life.

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