How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

Flickr Com­mons pho­to by J Stimp

Every­one used to read Samuel John­son. Now it seems hard­ly any­one does. That’s a shame. John­son under­stood the human mind, its sad­ly amus­ing frail­ties and its dou­ble-blind alleys. He under­stood the nature of that mys­te­ri­ous act we casu­al­ly refer to as “cre­ativ­i­ty.” It is not the kind of thing one lucks into or mas­ters after a sem­i­nar or lec­ture series. It requires dis­ci­pline and a mind free of dis­trac­tion. “My dear friend,” said John­son in 1783, accord­ing to his biog­ra­ph­er and sec­re­tary Boswell, “clear your mind of cant.”

There’s no miss­ing apos­tro­phe in his advice. Inspir­ing as it may sound, John­son did not mean to say “you can do it!” He meant “cant,” an old word for cheap decep­tion, bias, hypocrisy, insin­cere expres­sion. “It is a mode of talk­ing in Soci­ety,” he con­ced­ed, “but don’t think fool­ish­ly.” Johnson’s injunc­tion res­onat­ed through a cou­ple cen­turies, became gar­bled into a banal affir­ma­tion, and was lost in a grave­yard of image macros. Let us endeav­or to retrieve it, and rumi­nate on its wis­dom.

We may even do so with our favorite mod­ern brief in hand, the sci­en­tif­ic study. There are many we could turn to. For exam­ple, notes Derek Beres, in a 2014 book neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniel Lev­itin brought his research to bear in argu­ing that “infor­ma­tion over­load keeps us mired in noise.… This saps us of not only willpow­er (of which we have a lim­it­ed store) but cre­ativ­i­ty as well.” “We sure think we’re accom­plish­ing a lot,” Lev­itin told Susan Page on The Diane Rehm Show in 2015, “but that’s an illu­sion… as a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, I can tell you one thing the brain is very good at is self-delu­sion.”

Johnson’s age had its own ver­sion of infor­ma­tion over­load, as did that of anoth­er cur­mud­geon­ly voice from the past, T.S. Eliot, who won­dered, “Where is the wis­dom we have lost in knowl­edge? Where is the knowl­edge we have lost in infor­ma­tion?” The ques­tion leaves Eliot’s read­ers ask­ing whether what we take for knowl­edge or infor­ma­tion real­ly are such? Maybe they’re just as often forms of need­less busy­ness, dis­trac­tion, and over­think­ing. Stan­ford researcher Emma Sep­pälä sug­gests as much in her work on “the sci­ence of hap­pi­ness.” At Quartz, she writes,

We need to find ways to give our brains a break.… At work, we’re intense­ly ana­lyz­ing prob­lems, orga­niz­ing data, writing—all activ­i­ties that require focus. Dur­ing down­time, we immerse our­selves in our phones while stand­ing in line at the store or lose our­selves in Net­flix after hours.

Sep­pälä exhorts us to relax and let go of the con­stant need for stim­u­la­tion, to take longs walks with­out the phone, get out of our com­fort zones, make time for fun and games, and gen­er­al­ly build in time for leisure. How does this work? Let’s look at some addi­tion­al research. Bar-Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty’s Moshe Bar and Shi­ra Baror under­took a study to mea­sure the effects of dis­trac­tion, or what they call “men­tal load,” the “stray thoughts” and “obses­sive rumi­na­tions” that clut­ter the mind with infor­ma­tion and loose ends. Our “capac­i­ty for orig­i­nal and cre­ative think­ing,” Bar writes at The New York Times, “is marked­ly stymied” by a busy mind. “The clut­tered mind,” writes Jes­si­ca Still­man, “is a cre­ativ­i­ty killer.”

In a paper pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, Bar and Baror describe how “con­di­tions of high load” fos­ter uno­rig­i­nal think­ing. Par­tic­i­pants in their exper­i­ment were asked to remem­ber strings of arbi­trary num­bers, then to play word asso­ci­a­tion games. “Par­tic­i­pants with sev­en dig­its to recall resort­ed to the most sta­tis­ti­cal­ly com­mon respons­es (e.g., white/black),” writes Bar, “where­as par­tic­i­pants with two dig­its gave less typ­i­cal, more var­ied pair­ings (e.g. white/cloud).” Our brains have lim­it­ed resources. When con­strained and over­whelmed with thoughts, they pur­sue well-trod paths of least resis­tance, try­ing to effi­cient­ly bring order to chaos.

“Imag­i­na­tion,” on the oth­er hand, wrote Dr. John­son else­where, “a licen­tious and vagrant fac­ul­ty, unsus­cep­ti­ble of lim­i­ta­tions and impa­tient of restraint, has always endeav­ored to baf­fle the logi­cian, to per­plex the con­fines of dis­tinc­tion, and burst the enclo­sures of reg­u­lar­i­ty.” Bar describes the con­trast between the imag­i­na­tive mind and the infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing mind as “a ten­sion in our brains between explo­ration and exploita­tion.” Gorg­ing on infor­ma­tion makes our brains “’exploit’ what we already know,” or think we know, “lean­ing on our expec­ta­tion, trust­ing the com­fort of a pre­dictable envi­ron­ment.” When our minds are “unloaded,” on the oth­er hand, which can occur dur­ing a hike or a long, relax­ing show­er, we can shed fixed pat­terns of think­ing, and explore cre­ative insights that might oth­er­wise get buried or dis­card­ed.

As Drake Baer suc­cinct­ly puts in at New York Mag­a­zine’s Sci­ence of Us, “When you have noth­ing to think about, you can do your best think­ing.” Get­ting to that state in a cli­mate of per­pet­u­al, unsleep­ing dis­trac­tion, opin­ion, and alarm, requires anoth­er kind of dis­ci­pline: the dis­ci­pline to unplug, wan­der off, and clear your mind.

For anoth­er angle on this, you might want to check out Cal New­port’s 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Suc­cess in a Dis­tract­ed World.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

How Walk­ing Fos­ters Cre­ativ­i­ty: Stan­ford Researchers Con­firm What Philoso­phers and Writ­ers Have Always Known

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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