The twenty first century has experienced an explosion in the speed and volume of information consumed as well as the methods we access this information. We’ve come to rely on 24/7, multi -channel communication. But this could also be eroding our ability to think clearly, expansively and creatively.
With so many ways to access information, we’re feeling busier, but this hasn’t necessarily translated to higher productivity. With these interruptions to our thinking, this information overload is changing behaviours and limiting our ability to manage our attention.
It’s the scale of the overload with email the most pervasive, with figures of 5.2 billion worldwide email accounts in 2018. Add social media, messaging apps, an increase in advertising exposure and a typical adult’s daily media consumption has almost doubled in recent years.
This overwhelming amount of information also leads to stress, narrowing our attention into more analytical and short term thinking. To cope we filter and narrow our information sources… and this forces us to quickly summarise information to determine if something is good, bad or relevant.
This is changing behaviours as more qualitative information can be missed, in favour of reductionist, analytical and quantitative thinking, meaning we become less focussed on the longer term impacts of decisions.
So, what’s the impact on our ability to be creative?
Short term distraction is a hindrance to long term sustained creative thinking. Imagine the brain bombarded by millions of bits of information. It copes by discarding information to enable it to focus on what’s necessary at that moment. The information is registered, or possibility stored as a memory, ready to direct to future responses.
This selective attention is a cognitive process where the brain attends to a small number of sensory inputs while filtering out what it deems unnecessary distractions. The brain’s selective attention works out what is and isn’t important via the limbic system’s ‘thalamus’. This manages the brain’s filtering system, acting like a road traffic officer, directing sensory information to the appropriate part of the brain.
We choose where we place our attention. When we stop, our thoughts have a chance to come to the surface and to the attention of the conscious brain, to move from a distracted to an absorbed state. The absorbed focus and the ability to control our attention is fundamental to optimal performance, plus it feels good and pleasure is the emotional marker for flow.
While the longer term implications are yet to be realised, we all need to become more selective about the information we consume. Education and management practices are evolving but not fast enough to cope with the changes we’re experiencing.
Now more than even we need to ensure we spend time and energy cultivating creativity skills, creating environments and habits that enable us to incubate ideas.
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