Scientists fear that a digital flood of 24-hour rolling news and infotainment is putting our primitive grey matter under such stress that we can no longer think wisely or empathise with others
Every day, just to keep up to date, that grey lump between your ears has to shovel ever bigger piles of infotainment — tottering jumbles of global-warming updates, web gossip, refugee crises, e-mails, fashion alerts, Twitters and advertisements. Now research suggests that we may have reached an historic point in human evolution, where the digital world we have created has begun to outpace our neurons’ processing abilities.
The result is that our data-numbed brains increasingly say “whatever” to the world’s troubles. The trauma we witness on our screens — and the indignation that it should spark — goes unprocessed as our minds seek refuge in simpler things, such as whether Su-Bo should have won Britain’s Got Talent. But the sense of mind-lag and unease that result from info-overload may be causing significant levels of anxiety and depression.
The concerns have been raised by two newly published studies which indicate that streaming digital news may now run faster than our ability to make moral judgments. Rapid info-bursts of stabbings, suffering, eco-threat and war are consumed on a “yes-blah” level but don’t make us indignant, compassionate or inspired. It seems that the quicker we know, the less we may care — and the less humane we become.
One fear is that habitual rapid media-browsing can, ironically, block our ability to develop wisdom. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, announced recently that they had compiled compelling evidence that even the universal traits of human wisdom — empathy, compassion, altruism, tolerance and emotional stability — are hard-wired into our brains. In Archives of General Psychiatry, Professor Dilip Jeste says that neurons associated with those attributes seem to be sited primarily in areas of the prefrontal cortex — the slower-acting, recently evolved regions of our brain that are bypassed when the world feels stressful and our primitive survival instincts grab the controls.