The Intellectual Obesity Crisis
Our addiction to information is clogging up our minds with harmful junk
We evolved to seek out sugar because it was a scarce source of energy. But when we learned how to produce it on an industrial scale, suddenly our love for sweet things went from an asset to a liability. The same is now true of data. In an age of information overabundance, our curiosity, which once focused us, now distracts us. And it’s caused an epidemic of intellectual obesity that’s clogging up our minds.
The analogy of information as sugar is not just rhetoric. A 2019 study by researchers at Berkeley found that information acts on the brain’s dopamine-producing reward system in the same way as food. Put simply, the brain treats information as a reward in itself; it doesn't matter whether the info is accurate or useful, the brain will still crave it and feel satisfied after consuming it (at least until it starts craving more).
For hundreds of millennia, this wasn't a problem, because on the plains of the savanna, or in the depths of the jungle, information was as scarce and precious as sugar. But this all changed with the rise of industrial society and the web.
We now live in an attention economy, where people are trying to draw our interest by any means possible. Since low-quality information is just as effective at satisfying our information-cravings as high-quality information, the most efficient way to get attention in the digital age is by mass-producing low-quality "junk info"— a kind of fast food for thought. Like fast food, junk info is cheap to produce and satisfying to consume, but high in additives and low in nutrition. It's also potentially addictive and, if consumed excessively, highly dangerous.
Junk info is often false info, but it isn't junk because it's false. It's junk because it has no practical use; it doesn't make your life better, and it doesn't improve your understanding. Even lies can be nourishing; the works of Dostoevsky are fiction, yet can teach you more about humans than any psychology textbook. Meanwhile, most verified facts do nothing to improve your life or understanding, and are, to paraphrase Nietzsche, as useful as knowledge of the chemical composition of water to someone who is drowning.
Common types of junk info include gossip, trivia, clickbait, hackery, marketing, churnalism, and babble. But in fact, any information that you can't use is junk info. A typical example on social media would be a photo of a freshly cooked burger, captioned with "Look what I just made!" but posted without a recipe so you can't even recreate it. Such an image might make you briefly salivate, and possibly spur you to make a burger of your own, but it provides no discernible value to your life.
Most people don't think very hard about what they post on social media, and such people are naturally able to post at a faster rate than more careful minds, so trivialities (e.g. "feeling tired, might go to sleep, lol") quickly saturate these platforms. But the junk info that spreads furthest of all is that which evokes strong emotions, and this hasn't gone unnoticed by those, such as journalists and commentators, who are most desperate for your attention.
The easiest strong emotion to evoke is outrage; it requires nothing more sophisticated than a simple story of oppression, tailored to the appropriate political tribe. And yet outrage, for all its cheapness, is highly addictive and highly contagious, making it the weapon of choice for anyone who wants to be noticed in the online cacophony. Even once-respected outlets like the New York Times now resort to "ragebait," sensationalist stories calculated to infuriate both the newspaper's readers and its political opponents, ensuring maximum attention. The typical way the Times does this is by accusing various people and random objects of being sexist or racist. (As a brief illustration, a recent analysis of 27 million news articles found that use of the words ‘sexist’ and ‘racist’ in the Times increased over 400% since 2012.)
Market forces and social pressures have caused junk info to dominate the web because it's cheap, easy to produce, and good at stealing your attention. Its ubiquity means it's always within easy reach of netizens, and as a result, millions of people are now hooked on it. It's why they endlessly scroll their Twitter timelines or check their Instagram notifications, or repeatedly click refresh on the YouTube homepages, or keep renewing their subscriptions to the Times.
The vast majority of the online content you consume today won't improve your understanding of the world. In fact, it may just do the opposite; recent research suggests that people browsing social media tend to experience what’s called “normative dissociation” in which they become less aware and less able to process information, to such an extent that they often can’t recall what they just read.
But despite being "empty calories," junk info still tastes delicious. Since your dopamine pathways can't distinguish between useful and useless info, consuming junk info gives you the satisfaction of feeling like you're learning—it offers you the illusion of getting smarter—even though all you're really doing is shoving popcorn into your skull.
Eventually, the addiction to useless info leads to what I call "intellectual obesity." Just as gorging on junk food bloats your body, so gorging on junk info bloats your mind, filling it with a cacophony of half-remembered gibberish that sidetracks your attention and confuses your senses. Unable to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant, you become concerned by trivialities and outraged by fiction. These concerns and outrages push you to consume even more, and all the time that you're consuming, you're prevented from doing anything else: learning, focusing, even thinking. The result is that your stream of consciousness becomes clogged and constipated; you develop atherosclerosis of the mind.
We now live in a state of constant distraction caused by an addiction to useless information, and this distraction is so overpowering it even distracts us from the fact we're being distracted. You'll probably read this article, briefly consider the damage junk info has done to you, and then return to aimlessly scrolling Twitter.
But before you do that, let's try to work out some kind of solution.
The most straightforward way to improve your information diet is to develop a habit for meta-awareness; to pay attention to what you're paying attention to. When you find yourself reaching unprompted for your phone, or hovering over the Twitter icon, invoke the "10-10-10 rule:" ask yourself, if I consume this info, how will I feel about it in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years? Doing this may help you realize that the brief sugar-rush offered by junk info is so transient and insignificant in the grand scheme of your life that it's simply not worth your time.
And if your cravings can't be beaten by mere reasoning, then consider rearranging your lifestyle so junk info is simply not an option. The way I beat intellectual obesity was by trying to become the best writer I can be. Writing requires you to filter out bad information because you have a duty to your readers to not be full of shit. Writing also forces you to periodically shut out information altogether so you can be alone with your thoughts. This regular confrontation with yourself helps you keep your bearings in a world constantly trying to lure you away from your brain.
Ultimately you'll have to determine the info-diet that works for you. But if you insist on endlessly consuming whatever the web serves you, know that this banquet culminates in a bitter dessert: at the end of your life, when you're weighing your regrets, you probably won’t say “Man, I wish I’d spent more time browsing the web.” On the contrary, you'll have no recollection of that tweet by a stranger telling you they prefer pasta to pizza, or that gif that amused you for five seconds, or that Times piece that made you mad for a whole minute. And when you notice the myriad holes that all this junk has left in your memory, then it’ll finally be clear that you weren’t consuming it as much as it was consuming you.