Evolution and Information Overload


The amount of information a human being consumed in the 18th century in his whole life is the same as a week worth of information in a regular newspaper. This bizarre fact let me to the question if people did in fact adapted themselves to an ever growing information overload in our modern society.

Adaptation is one of the basic phenomena of biology, and is the process whereby an organism becomes better suited to its habitat. Also, the term adaptation may refer to a trait that is important for an organism’s survival. For example, the adaptation of horses’ teeth to the grinding of grass, or the ability of horses to run fast and escape predators. Is this change in information consumption enough reason for our brains to adapt? It appears our brain is in fact capable to easily adapt itself. Blind people reading braille use the area of a human brain normally allocated to visual input. From another research it appeared that the area that gets activated when we listen to piano notes is approximately 25% larger in musicians than non-musicians. Did two centuries of ever increasing information consumption had the same effect on our brains?

Sociologist James Flynn might has an answer to this question. In 1980 he discovered in a routine check of historical IQ scores that these IQ scores were rising in a linear way. Flynn compared more that 7500 IQ tests between 1932 and 1978 and it appeared that the average IQ rose with three points per decennia. Off course could this rise in IQ scores be the result of a better education. But in that case the biggest improvements should have been in language and general knowledge and far less in problem solving skills. Problem solving is often seen as a cultural and education independent skill. The biggest improvement however wasn’t in language and general knowledge, it was in problem solving.
We could conclude that the increasing complexity in our environment accompanied by a growing information overload had a positive effect on our problem solving skills and resulted in a growing IQ score. Our brains adapted and will probably keep doing this in the future. But will this linear change in IQ scores be enough when information appears to be increasing in exponential ways?


11 Responses to “Evolution and Information Overload”

  1. I don’t think information overload is increasing. As Clay Shirky puts it (http://www.cjr.org/overload/interview_with_clay_shirky_par.php?page=all), information overload started with the Library of Alexandria, when there was more information than one person could possibly deal with. I think the way that we filter the information is changing, and these filters are what we should be focusing on, not the volume of information itself.

    IQ tests measure problem solving in mathemetical and linguistic intelligences, not generally. Couldn’t it be that the tests themselves are becoming easier? For instance, how are IQ tests normalised over time?

    • 2 Barry

      I definitely agree with you that filters are the solution to this problem. I wrote my graduation thesis on contextual filtering: http://www.barryborsboom.nl/afstuderen/

      I don’t now if and how IQ test are normalized over time. But the thing i pointed out is that the sections in the IQ test which get better are based on problem solving, which is often seen as a cultural and education independent skill.

  2. “The amount of information a human being consumed in the 18th century in his whole life is the same as a week worth of information in a regular newspaper”

    This is an artifact of how you measure.

    We started our evolution with informational overload – Nature throws more information at us than we have senses for and more than any of those senses can manage. Not only that, but our neurology is built to disregard and discard masses of information before it ever gets to the brain. Your retina receives but a fraction of the information pouring in, and passes only a fraction of that to the visual centres

    What is true of your claim though is the amount of *artificial information* – information that is crafted by us and which relies upon learnt decoding


    The core assumption behind information overload is that the information we want is the same as the information we need or like. Therefore, we cannot with good reason cut back on the information we want, because it reflects stuff that is important to us. Hence, thanks to the web we are overloaded with needed information that we can’t help wanting. However, from the perspective of contemporary affective neuroscience, wanting and liking are NOT the same thing, and are governed by entirely different neural processes. Thus, what we want is different from what we need because wanting and liking represent distinctive neurological events. Therefore, the key underlying premise of information overload that everything we want is the same as everything we need is based on cognitive principles that have no basis in neural reality, and the concept of information overload must therefore be abandoned.

    The linked article questions the concept of information overload by challenging this most elementary underlying assumption. Based on the work of the distinguished neuropsychologist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan (who also vetted and endorsed it), it is simple, short, and uses a Boston Red Sox title run to make its very radical point. Hope you ‘like’ it or at the very least the Red Sox!


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  1. 1 How you can cope with information overload – too much good stuff to read « Chris Adams Project (CAP)

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