The Twitterization of our brains: Is unlimited choice making us better or worse thinkers?

I just read the Newsweek article “I Can’t Think!” that claims the vast amount of information available to a person in the digital age overloads our decision-making processes and causes  a “brain freeze” (and no, not the kind you get when you eat your ice cream too fast). I’ve stood on both sides of the fence on this issue, and at times sat securely on the fence. But I believe I’ve come to a more solid decision on the matter: Yes, unlimited choice can paralyze us…but it doesn’t have to.

After going through a graduate program for a master’s and another for a Ph.D. in English, I may not represent the average person here simply because of the way I had to train my brain to survive those years. During my Ph.D., every week I was responsible for having “read” several hundred pages of text. Clearly, no one can absorb that much information, so your brain starts to pick and choose what to register and tuck away for later and what to discard.

The key to that process is recognizing the information that was beneficial to my immediate purpose, then shutting out everything else. Think of it like going to the grocery store. With the thousands of products there, one could easily have a panic attack because of all the choices. But you don’t. Why? Because you have a list of what you need—a list of the items that will be beneficial to your immediate purpose of cooking dinner. If you ever go shopping (or information scouring) without a list of what you’re looking for in the first place, you will be overwhelmed, no matter if there are five options or 500. Figure out what you need ahead of time.

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not exactly sure what you want, then browse. If browsing starts to confuse you, then pick something arbitrarily. The reason I think that’s a somewhat safe route to go is because it won’t really be an arbitrary decision, it will be a more instinctual one. I don’t even mean subconscious here, like the article discusses, but rather what your hand automatically reaches for without any apparent rhyme or reason.

Because of the insane amount of information coming at us every second, our decisions are that much more valuable. Not in the sense that one’s decisions are more weighty, but in that what we choose has more value because we chose it from among so many options. I bought a new guitar a while back (a Nashguitar T-63 aged vintage Telecaster to be exact). I did a vast amount of research on a number of different guitars that were along the lines of what I was looking for. Out of the hundreds of options, the one I bought is the one guitar for me. Do you think I just lucked out and happened to get the one guitar in the world that was made for me? No. It’s the one guitar for me because it’s the one I chose. Many of the other guitars could also have become the one for me if I had chosen them. See what I’m getting at? Our decisions are valuable, but they aren’t any more weighty than if we only got to chose one of two options rather than one of hundreds.

But I’ve always been a very intuitive decision-maker, so maybe that, along with the torturous amount of academic training I endured, make me a little less susceptible to information overload.

2 thoughts on “The Twitterization of our brains: Is unlimited choice making us better or worse thinkers?

  1. After having “read” your post, but not the article in the issue of Newsweek sitting three feet from me, I am reminded of when I first started using Twitter. Every time I came back to my computer, I tried to read everything in my feed that I had missed. When I was following 5 people, it was doable and made sense. As I started to add more people to my feed, and I only chose people who I really wanted to hear from, this became a source of stress instead of a positive communication platform. Learning to treat it like a conversation at a party turned out to be the key. When joining a conversation, you don’t make everyone repeat what they said before you got there. (well, you might, but it is poor form) Instead, you join in on the current topic.

    As my interests grow more varied and I am passionate about more and more things, I am having to learn to apply a filter to what I choose to ignore and what I choose to respond to. Apparently, I chose this article to respond to.

  2. I like your idea of thinking of Twitter as an ongoing conversation. You definitely wouldn’t ask your friends or colleagues everything they’d talked about since you saw them last. And that’s about the equivalent of scrolling through the past 12 hours of tweets in your stream (that is, if you can manage to stay away from Twitter for that long).

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