Era of information overload

Tactfully filtering out inessential information and settling for just the amount required for decision making can be a marvel.

Published - June 28, 2020 12:31 am IST

Walking down the supermarket aisle, I was inundated with selections and choices I never had to rack my brains about back in the 1980s. I thanked the stars that we grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and did not have to endure these predicaments as the millennials do.

For starters, all that an empty tube of toothpaste required was a stroll to the local shop around the block where the friendly shopkeeper presented me with the only existing brand which back then was synonymous with the word toothpaste itself. Now a visit to my well-stocked supermarket confronts me with an array of tooth products — teeth whitening, gum protecting, cavity sealing, sensitivity confronting, tissue safeguarding, fluoride-loaded or fluoride-free, herbal or non-herbal, with a nuance of mint flavour or ones without… How can our short-term memory hold enough information to take an informed, wise decision?

I stopped myself from reflexively reaching out for my smartphone to forage the search engines to make this basic choice in my life! At last I chose one with multiple benefits just to make sure I ticked all the boxes to insure myself against caries. I walked out triumphantly with an image of blinding white teeth flashing through my mind thanks to the perennial commercials one cannot escape from. I hoped that after spending almost an hour on deciding my teeth cleanser, as Keri Russell said, the smallest decisions are the basis for bigger directional shifts to my life… or at least a directional shift to my smile!

Typing the words "chest pain" on a search engine, one is swarmed with details about the innumerable types of pain one did not know existed: sharp as a needle, prickly as a thorn, achy, radiatory, non-radiatory, throbby, burning, heavy as the dark clouds, light as a feather, pressing or non-pressing, tight or non-tight, worse with breath or not at all!

What was once confined to the esoteric province of the medical fraternity who have undergone years of training to unravel the mysteries of sufferings of the human body and mind is now dangerously at the disposal of the layman.

Without the extensive training to adequately interpret these symptoms, this deluge of needless information is more of a heart-wrenching pain of panic.

As a consultant psychiatrist in busy Chennai, I see people presenting with an array of anxiety-related conditions. Illness anxiety disorder, also known as hypochondriasis, is a type of anxiety when one is focused on minor bodily symptoms and often interprets these as signs of a major illness. The fears are not mitigated by the array of innumerable tests or reassurances by their doctors.

They continue to agonise over the possibilities and potential consequences of an ailment. Scrutinising their symptoms for hours together and continuing to consult sundry doctors are all part of the condition, as one struggles to be consoled.

The bane of people with an illness anxiety disorder is misinterpretation of information. They are literally at the mercy of search engines for hours together as their fears mount with time. Our information culture has no paucity of details, facts, figures and information which is readily available at your fingertips.

It is a no-brainer that such bombardment of facts will turn a bad anxiety into its worst form. Not to mention social media-based news which are many times false and intended to sensationalise. The last thing you would want to do right now is conduct a search on how to tackle information overload! Let’s get to the basics. Simplicity never fails.

Knowing when to say no to information overload is an art in itself but one that will do wonders in this century when mastered well. Tactfully filtering out inessential information and settling for just the amount required for decision making can be a marvel. As one continues to wonder how to barricade oneself from this barrage of information, I ponder on the science of single-tasking.

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