Your Brain on Information

There are over 200,000 works at the Museum of Modern Art. After my visit today, I readily remember fewer than ten (and this number will probably dwindle to one or two over the next few days). Of course, not all the works were on display — probably only a thousand. Still, I won’t hold on to much of that 200,000 number.

David Perell argues in his podcast that most problems for humans, today, are no longer those of scarcity, as they once were. They are problems of abundance. Our culture has understood this about food for a while. Almost everyone is cognizant of the food that they eat, moderating (at least loosely) the amount of sugar and calories they consume. But we are still working on moderating our information diets.

MoMA and other institutions no longer have a problem with quantity. We must shift our focus to quality. Source.

Have you ever watched someone do a google search? Maybe it’s finding an answer to a trivia question or identifying directions to a local restaurant or learning more about the best vacation spots. Whatever it is, I usually walk away infuriated.

It’s particularly a problem with the older generations. Instead of looking up “best pizza locations near me,” they will instead search “best pizza locations in New York City.” The goal is the same: find a good pizza location that is relatively cheap and is close. The result of the search is vastly different. In the digital age and attention economy, having information at your fingertips is useless. Having the right information, though, is invaluable.

The brain can store about 125 MB of information in memory. My google drive stores about 1000 times that figure. In terms of remembering information, technology has already surpassed the human brain. The true test of whether you will succeed in an increasingly automated world is whether you let machines do what they do best and focus more on what you do best.

And the human brain is meant to create.

But, how can I know what information to consume to support my life? This is where most writers will stop. Too much information is bad. Remember less and create more. I’m left unsatisfied.

Sure, there’s a boatload of information out there, and I should moderate what data I consume, but not everything is as simple as finding the best pizza location near me. The complex issues of finding worthwhile ideas, inspiration for creativity, and remaining joyful cannot be navigated with the simple maxim of consuming less information. There is not a single moment of waking time for humans that we aren’t actively engaged in taking in and reacting to information. How do I know what’s good and what’s bad?

With so much information, what should you consume? Source.

Cal Newport offers some helpful advice in his Digital Minimalism. That said, I can’t help but feel that he is exerting a little too much control over what he consumes. Too much control restrains creativity and prevents stumbling on to something that may change your direction.

The reason evolution gave us such a capacity to consume information is that we need to react to it. We need to work with it to keep ourselves alive and advance humanity. When we repeatedly receive information that is unhelpful to ourselves, we get rid of it. That friend who is a little too negative? We move away from them. A painful experience that isn’t serving us? We avoid it. While our brains don’t always place us in the best positions for our growth, a mindful mind does.

Being mindful of your feelings is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century as we simultaneously gain (ability to access any information we want) and lose (e.g., advertisements) control over the information we take in. Mindfulness of what we are extracting value from and what’s taking from our lives will separate the creative genius from the mindless scroller. Specifically, you should be mindful of your identity. You should consume content related to the identities you are trying to cultivate in yourself.

Mindfulness comes first when we choose the information we consume. Source.

Throwing out Instagram and YouTube is unrealistic for most people. However, aligning the content on those platforms with the person you want to be is realistic. It’s not that hard to quickly scroll through who you follow, pick those that are supporting you in who you’re becoming and disregard those that aren’t. This mindfulness will bleed into every detail of how you use the platform and how you spend time in your life. Identity-mindfulness is essential in pursuing life to its fullest, and it starts with how you consume.

While both may spend an hour on Instagram each day, they will do it for different reasons and with different results. The first uses it for creative inspiration on a new clothing brand, while the second uses it to escape their own mind. The first is mindful of why they use it, while the second is oblivious to the underlying reasons.

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