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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Story Pick: I Can't Think!

By Brigid Schulte

Much has been written about the rushed and somewhat disappointing debut of the new Newsweek. Slate's Jack Shafer calls it "a meal that a homeless person would walk away from." Choire Sicha wrote in The Awl that the issue would "electrify the waiting rooms of dentists all over Scarsdale."

I picked up my Newsweek at the airport in Houston on Monday. It was the March 7th edition and was still the "old" Newsweek apparently, not the Daily Beast's Newsweek. And while it was a ghost of its former self and, one hopes, a whisper of what it may yet become, Sharon Begley's cover story, Brain Freeze, caught my eye. She writes of scientists studying how the information overload that we all live with in modern society affects our thinking. What they're finding is - we can't think.

In one study, Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, used fMRI to scan brain activity as her subjects were flooded with information and told to make choices.

As the information load increased, she found, so did activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions. But as the researchers gave the bidders more and more information, activity in the dorsolateral PFC suddenly fell off, as if a circuit breaker had popped. “The bidders reach cognitive and information overload,” says Dimoka. They start making stupid mistakes and bad choices because the brain region responsible for smart decision making has essentially left the premises. For the same reason, their frustration and anxiety soar: the brain’s emotion regions—previously held in check by the dorsolateral PFC—run as wild as toddlers on a sugar high. The two effects build on one another. “With too much information, ” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”

Begley synthesizes some of the latest research and thinking on information overload and how the brain is wired, called "decision science," and comes up with this surprise: "Some of our best decisions are made through unconscious processes." And hooking up the way we feel emotionally about a decision with the rational reasons for it, scientists are finding, often produces the best results. If we shut out the emotions, "we're likely to overhthink a decision," Begley writes, "and that has been shown to produce worse outcomes on even the simplest tasks."

So, the scientists seem to be saying to "maximizers" of information like me, unplug, stop surfing the net til 3 a.m. to find THE perfect vacation spot, car or 401K plan, get some sleep and go with your gut.

By Brigid Schulte  | March 9, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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Comments

Dear Brigid

I read your recent article with a slight smug of satisfaction, finally somebody else realized quite how serious this problem actually is.

It is because of this epidemic that I am launching a new blog:

http://www.cant-think.com

We certainly need a system that helps us think straight or the overload of information will drive us crazy!

Thank you for bringing this important subject to peoples attention.

Kind regards

Celia

P.S: If you're interested then please do visit www.cant-think.com as you may well find simple solutions to these pressing problems. Thank you.

Posted by: WhetherGirl | March 9, 2011 10:29 AM | Report abuse

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