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Is Information Overload Causing Mental Obesity?

In today's society, it can be hard to find time to digest the information we collect.

Have you lost hours upon hours gobbling up endless tidbits of useless information instantaneously provided at the click of a mouse? If you have, you may be suffering from “Mental Obesity” and need a “Digital Diet,” terms coined by David Ryan Polgar, author of Wisdom in the Age of Twitter.

Recently I sat down with David to discuss how this age of information overload is impacting how we think. The bottom line is, all the inane information we take in on a daily basis is making it harder to concentrate, be reflective, and think critically. In other words, our smartphones are making us stupid.

The term Mental Obesity comes from his analogy that access to endless information is like overeating. To explain it, David compared the information we have at our fingertips to the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos. In the game, each player has a plastic hippo. Marbles are released and the hippos try to “eat” as many as possible until they are gone. But what if the marbles never stop? Would the hippos keep eating until they are obese? Aren’t hippos obese by nature of just being hippos? Wait, I’ll google “can hippos become obese?” It turns out they can be obese. They can also run 30 miles an hour and have pink milk. What would cause their milk to be pink? Google “hippos and pink milk...” 

You would think the ability to research anything and everything, with so little effort, would increase our ability to learn but, actually, it does just the opposite. This avalanche of knowledge has made us constantly consume rather than digest information. I have students who can’t begin writing research papers because they can’t stop researching. They think, “the next article will be better” or they get distracted and off track as I did with my hippos. The process of learning has gone from fine dining to fast food. It’s all super-sized and empty calories.

In the film "Race to Nowhere," a teacher characterizes the American education system as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” I can’t imagine this statement came as a surprise to anyone. We communicate through texts, share our lives in 140 characters or less on Twitter, and have “friends” on Facebook we have never met. Shallow doesn’t even begin to cover how students relate to one another. Critical thinking has become collateral damage of the age of information. We have become so scatterbrained, it’s a wonder we can even find our iPads or remember our passwords.

In his book, David offers ways to digitally diet, including focusing on real experiences, working on patience, and getting a hammock. I would add no phones at the dinner table, do something creative, read a real book, and have at least one uninterrupted face to face conversation a day with another human being. Also, get a pet. My dog is a very deep thinker and rarely texts during our conversations.

Sue Schaefer, M.ED., M.A.T., founder of Academic Coaching Associates, is an Academic Coach, Student Advocate, and certified teacher. You may visit her website at www.academiccoachingct.com, email her at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com and follow her on Twitter @sueschaefer1.

Si January 25, 2013 at 12:29 PM
I liked your article, however, a bit ironic how, at the end, you tell us how to "email you, visit your website and give us your twitter address?!"
Ed Muldoon January 25, 2013 at 02:33 PM
It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information. - Oscar Wilde
John L January 25, 2013 at 05:00 PM
Great article. It is causing not only mental obesity, but physical too. We no longer have to get up to go buy a paper, go to the bookstore, go to the library, mail a letter, or even change the channel. We don't even have to support the weight of a book, just rest our arms on a desk and slide the mouse. In our cars, we don't turn our heads to back up our cars (backup cams), lean over to roll up the windows or lock the doors, or even pull open the power sliding doors in the minivan. With bluetooth, we don't have to hold the phone to our ear, or even reach over to turn down the radio to answer the cell phone. The list goes on. The ironic thing is that after we spend the money for technology so that we don't have to move, we have to spend more for a personal trainer. The truth is that we are not that far from the people in the Pixar movie "Wall-E".
Dr. Mark Solomon January 25, 2013 at 10:40 PM
Turns out I was on the right track with my motto: I long for payphones!
Clinton Wu January 26, 2013 at 12:05 AM
Well these are all fine to do as long as there are limits - self-imposed or otherwise. The problem is a lot of us don't have the willpower to disconnect or unplug unless we build healthier digital habits. I think some technology should help us do this by pushing us to manage our digital time more productively and in a long-term sustainable way. That's what we're trying to do at Skim.Me (http://skim.me) in building a content consumption experience that isn't purely striving to manufacture addictive behaviors.
Susan Schaefer January 27, 2013 at 08:39 PM
It is an opinion column.
Susan Schaefer January 27, 2013 at 08:44 PM
Funny! John, I do a workshop called, "Teens and Their Screens; Taking Back the Power" where I use clips from Wall-E to make the very same point you did. Very ironic:-)
Susan Schaefer January 27, 2013 at 08:46 PM
I hadn't realized that Si! Forget all that and just call, or does that count as well?

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