Information Overload? It's Just Too Much Information!

Do you every wonder why you forget things? Why, once you've left your shopping list on the kitchen table you just know you'll have to come back to get the things you're about to forget? Or why you simply cannot remember the name of the woman who says 'Hello!' to you every morning at the bus stop? Okay, getting a bit older, not concentrating properly and just being really bad at remembering names all play their parts, but I have another theory. A theory that, once you've heard it, I am confident will explain everything. You see I think we're simply expected to remember too much.

Firstly, there's your telephone number. Okay, not so hard to remember your house phone number, but I'll bet half of you have no idea of your mobile phone number. As it happens I do, but only because I was allowed to select it from a choice of hundreds and elected to have a series of nice little easy-to remember number combinations. Then you have your phone's pin number. You'll have a card number, a security number and a pin number for every credit or debit card you have. Your SkyPlus remote will have a pin number to let you watch any film you've recorded that is deemed unsuitable for young and unsupervised children. And, if you have two boxes, you'll have two numbers. I have to admit, having no impressionable children in the house to worry about, I have mine written on a sticker fastened to the back of the relevant remote. 

Computers are another example. Through work and home use, I have access to four computers. On each one I have passwords and user names to remember. I use social networking. I have three email accounts (don't ask). I am a member of a couple of forums. I have to have access to update this website. I'm a member of several genealogical sites. I use Ebay and Etsy and Paypal. And for each one of these I have to have a user name and password. And no, I don't cheat and have them all the same because I'm terrified that my entire life will be taken over by a stranger (who'd obviously want to steal my family research etc) should I accidentally let anyone know what my password is. So I am supposed to remember all of them.

But, let me tell you, this year I reached saturation point. I bought a new laptop and had to re-enter all my passwords etc when I logged in for the first time. But I simply could not remember which password was for which account. So, having spent the best part of two days answering security questions just to be allowed to reset my passwords (all of which are now different, so I have absolutely no chance of ever remembering them in the right order), I wrote them down. I have a little book, never far from my side, that I can immediately reference the next time I need to re-enter them. Heaven help me if I ever lose that book!

And you can't very well walk up to the hole-in-the-wall, notebook in hand, now can you? Some things you just have to remember. And that's fine. But I'm a grown-up and I don't like to admit that there are aspects of modern life with which I really struggle to keep pace with. I'm happy to use what my dad would call new-fangled things like self-serve checkouts at the supermarket and check-ins at the airport. I'm happy to order my cinema tickets online & print them out at home. I use a pre-paid electronic bus ticket too but all these things require your brain to do more thinking than you might should you, say, allow the girl in Tesco to do the hard work, queue up at the airport, wait in line for your movie tickets or hand over a couple of quid to the bus driver. Is it any wonder we struggle to remember what we had for tea yesterday?

But I don't think it's just the remembering that causes us brain ache. I think we're simply exposed to too much information. I'm not just talking about hundreds of telly channels with super-duper graphics and full interactivity. No, I mean the everyday, unavoidable information that gets shoved in our general direction while we go about our daily business. 

Before you leave your own home you're inundated with leaflets about takeaways and handymen and what some local candidate or other can do for your. Walk down any British high street and you'll be bombarded with information. You've got shop windows with huge signs shouting the latest offers, newspaper placards yelling the latest headlines and giant a-boards tripping you up with directions for a new Albanian restaurant. Sometimes it seems like every available surface has been plastered with some advert or not-so-vital piece of information. And if you take a stroll in your neighbourhood you'll encounter estate agent boards, traffic notices, parking restriction signs, planning applications tied to lampposts and 'For Sale' signs stuck in the back of cars. Doubtless all of these are important, if not absolutely life-saving. You do want to know which houses are for sale, where you can drive, when you can park, who wants to build a three-storey extension overlooking your garden and where you can get a bargain motor. You need to know. Of course you do. But you can bet there'll be a raft of useless information you'll have to sift through too. 

Stop at any set of lights and, in addition to lawful road signs you'll see adverts for slimming clubs, for a local band's gigs, for ways to make £500 a week. These things all used to be advertised in newsagents' windows or on local noticeboards. These things don't seem to exist anymore. Actually we do have a local noticeboard. Just around the corner on a lovely grass verge. It even got mended when it fell apart. And it's plastered with sensible, tidy, useful notices. Sadly many of which are about missing pets. But that doesn't stop people having the great idea of tying their home-spun adverts to the railings at a pedestrian crossing not twenty feet away. Because, let's face it, when you're waiting to cross a busy main road, you'd much rather read about 'Dazzer the White Van Man' and his 'speedy services' than keep an eye out for that fast-approaching lorry …

You might well argue that we can just discount the information we don't need. But we can't. At least not before we've looked at it, read it, assessed it, formed an opinion of it and made a decision about it. Do we need to know it? Do we need to remember it? Do we need to do anything about it? Do we need to tell anyone else? Arrgh! Is it any wonder we're stressed when our heads are so full of so much rubbish?

We're not surprised that our computers, when we've accessed goodness knows how many websites, bought how ever many groceries and so on, gets a bit ratty. And we expect it to struggle to cope when we open 16 browser windows, thirteen documents and our photo library. So we should probably expect the same when it comes to our brains. No wonder, then, that our brains, full to bursting with useless, or at least not terribly important information to assess, ache before we've even arrived at work.