Reflection & Information Overload

The following post, How We Think: Reflections on Thought in the Digital Age, was published by Policy Innovations, a publication by The Carnegie Council:  


In the early half of the 20th century, John Dewey, one of America’s foremost philosophers, wrote a text entitled How We Think that influenced American education and philosophy for years to come. It served as a systematic investigation into the nature of thought, ultimately arguing the need for thought training and—more broadly—for a more scientific approach to intellectual development.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, it goes without saying that how we think has profoundly changed: With the rapid rise of digital technologies—from smartphones and computers to the myriad applications that we use on them—we now receive more than five times the information than we did in 1986, the equivalent of 174 newspapers of data a day. This “information overload,” not to mention the disruptive and fragmented way in which it is received, overwhelms and weakens our brain’s attention and processing capacities. There are now entire research groups dedicated to studying and managing the impacts of it.

Furthermore, as we have become more reliant on external thinking aids, such as search engines, digital cameras, or GPS systems, to help us process, store, and navigate all this information, we have lost those thinking capacities within ourselves. A 2011 Science study showed that simply knowing something is stored in a computer reduces our ability to recall that information ourselves, called “external or transactive memory;” while another study showed that something so pervasive as snapping a picture with our smartphone impairs our actual memory of the object.

This article seeks to examine the contours of the Information Age against Dewey’s teachings—particularly his notion of reflective thinking and other forms of advanced thinking that he considered critical to civilized man. It then suggests ways we can address the imbalances of the impending digital rise/mental decline to sharpen our internal processing tools and achieve greater productivity and satisfaction.

Dewey defines reflective thinking as “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends.” He distinguishes reflective thinking from both “purely impulsive or purely routine action,” which characterizes the behavior of animals, and from “daydreaming, building of castles in the air, that loose flux of casual and disconnected material that floats through our minds in relaxed moments"—attributed to mere "dullards.” Rather, reflective thinking is the form of the thinking that gives rise to “reasoned conclusions,” such as the world is round and not flat, or there is a likelihood of rain based upon the appearance of clouds. These are simple activities of the mind, ones which we most likely take for granted; and yet it is upon these forms of thinking that discoveries are made, the future is predicted, and, ultimately, civilization is built.

Interestingly, the definition of reflective thought resembles attributes of the modern-day concept of flow, coined by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihály, and defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Where one gives rise to a mental conclusion and the other to a physical outcome, the two forms of thought are both marked by being active/involved, persistent/immersed, and careful/focused; and are deeply correlated, if not interchangeable at times.

If we look at the nature of thought encouraged by our current-day media landscapes, we find that this level of participation, immersion, and focus is precisely what is absent. Namely, the types of thinking encouraged by our pervasive digital devices are passive, fragmented, and often careless. As opposed to being reflective, marked by a level of coherence and sustained effort that moves toward a purpose, digitally-induced thinking is reactive.

As with memory, modern-day digital technologies tend to outsource much of what could potentially be reflective thinking to an external device that provides a quick, pre-formed answer: we look at a weather application, as opposed to formulating a conclusion based upon our observation of the temperature and clouds. As Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, writes: "We seek advice from recommendation engines on what to watch, read, and listen to. We look to Google, or to Apple’s Siri, to answer our questions and solve our problems. The computer is becoming our all-purpose tool for navigating, manipulating, and understanding the world, in both its physical and its social manifestation. He goes on to say, “just as earlier machines had replaced man’s muscles, these new devices seemed likely to replace his brains.” The lack of negative feedback present in automated systems can induce a “cognitive process that resembles … learned carelessness,” a kind of “tuning out,” as we turn from actors to observers and from active to passive thinkers. Today, we are able to accomplish great things with very little effort; whereby we forego our active or involved engagement in the task, undermining the conditions of both reflective thought and flow.

Furthermore, we find that the way we think with digital devices tends to be fragmented, as opposed to persistent or involved. Many of us now spend our days flipping between devices and applications, disrupting both the potential for reflective thinking, flow, and the rich problem-solving or discoveries each give rise to.

Scientists have found this constant switching between devices and mediums results in the depletion of our brain’s attentional capacity. It literally takes a “metabolic toll” on our neurological networks, as we scuttle between the so-called “mind-wandering mode” and the “central executive mode” of our brain, as stated by Daniel J. Levitan, author of The Organized Mind. Ironically, while this flipping back and forth may feel easy in the immediate term, a day of haphazard emailing and social media leads to cycles of anxiety and depression, impaired memory, and reduced productivity by as much as 40 percent. And yet many of us fall victim to it, day after day.

Our modern-day information processing is both careless in how it is consumed and how it is related back to others: rarely do we intentionally seek out an article, comb through it, and then selectively disperse it to an appropriate recipient. Rather, we come across it online, skim the headline or sound bites, and blast it indiscriminately via social media. As Daniel Levitan writes, this carelessness results in a surprising break in social etiquette. We somehow feel entitled to impose our interests or demands on complete strangers, via email, social media, or text that we would otherwise feel inappropriate, if made in person. We then end up subjecting them to the careless barrage and flow of ideas that we ourselves are subjected to.

Given all of these potential negative consequences, why do we perpetuate these behaviors? What are the forces at play, both physiological and societal, that keep us locked into these highly unproductive ways of thinking? For some insight, we can return to Dewey’s further elaboration on reflective thinking: "Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful."

This discomfort and disturbance can provide both the deep satisfaction of flow and the achievement of personal discoveries and accomplishments. Yet, it is easily trumped by the quick fix afforded by digital media. Namely, the rapid and easy consumption of information digitally provides a highly addictive series of chemical rewards, making the computer a kind of “electronic cocaine”: the experience of completing a trivial task, such as sending a text message or posting a status update, activates the rewards center of the brain, while the social feedback stimulates our pleasure centers. As a result, many of us have become iPhone- or computer-junkies—compulsively checking social media or scrolling through news feeds despite ourselves.

Until now, this behavior has been overlooked, accepted, and even encouraged, despite its incongruence with other social standards. Yet recently, a growing body of experts is cautioning against these tendencies and providing new models for “how to think” and train the mind to cultivate focus and engagement. There are new products, some of which are technological, that help create barriers against technology; and there are recommendations for how to get the most out of our devices while still preserving our minds. Ironically, one of these might be not clicking on all the hyperlinks in this article until you have finished it, or not sharing it on social media right away.

As a personal strategy, I now do not have Wi-Fi in my apartment and relegate the first portion of my day to undisrupted, immersive activities such as writing, research, or sketching at home. I try drafting emails in advance on a word processor and then sending them out one by one, in an intentional and non-reactive way. I have found the result to be more depth and quality in my work, and increased enjoyment, energy, and satisfaction overall.

This does require a certain level of discipline and resistance to what feels like a societal pressure to be constantly “online” and engaged in the battlefield of digital information. However, as companies, educators, and role-models, we can adjust our corporate practices and culture to reflect the latest science and encourage more sensible and compassionate practices to take place.

Whatever the case, we must first allow for some reflective thinking: actively choosing to inquire into the situation, sustaining an investigation in the impacts, and carefully carving out constructive alternatives that take into consideration our long-term personal and social well-being.
Photo credit / Artist: Olafur Eliasson