Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Perils of Mental Obesity

There is our environment. There is  information . And then there is us, with our brains, trying to interpret and make sense of it all.

Back in 1844, prior to the US Presidential elections, the Democrats picked a Senator Wright as their Vice Presidential nominee, and used the telegraph to inform and ask his consent. He instantly declined. (Today, they hide behind the stage, and emerge smiling to accept the nomination).  No one believed then in instant telegraphic communication, and the Democrats sent an entire committee down by train to confirm the Senator's response, which was exactly the same as before.  Naturally, and impressed with this instant  response, medical and scientific people then started wondering about whether this telegraph model might be applied to how our nerves function.

Folks like Helmholtz did very basic experiments to ascertain the speed of our thoughts; that is, something happening and a human being responding by sensing it. And found that responses happened in like a quarter of a second. Other folks got different results. Till better diagnostic technology arrived and it turned out that our nerves operate at many different speeds. It is about the complexity of wiring all the different parts of our bodies together. 

And unlike the telegraph, which might transmit the vilest of abuse with the same speed as the most adulatory message,  scientists discovered that our nerve cells also do a bit of learning if they are bombarded by repeated visuals, and actually reduce perception time. Despite the fact that messages must reach the concerned part of the brain, which must respond, before we see a result .  So along with smart nerve cells, it is also about wide roads through which impulse info  may travel.

In 1854,   William Thomson showed that the wider a telegraph wire, the faster its signal and the farther the signal could travel.

That also applies  to human nerves. The fattest nerve paths in the brain, are 200 times thicker than the thinnest ones.  And given the quarter of a million miles of nerve wiring in our brains, such a widening of paths, might lead , according to a Princeton Neuroscientist, Sam Wang,  to a head so big, you wouldnt fit it in a doorway, and it would consume a huge amount of energy.

So why do I go on about human information pathways ?

It has occurred to me that over the last half of the 20th century and well into this one (defining the period of my existence) , there has been a order of magnitude change ,  in the amount of extraneous information that we receive for processing, and the rate at which it has changed over the years. Our entire physical wellbeing must be related to having an optimum designed system to handle that.

Long time ago, our sources of information were books, radio, meeting people, cinema, performing arts , music , cultural events. There was time to observe , learn, and act.

End of last century, was  like an avalanche or flood of information systems, whether they came through the Net, the phones, the numerous TV channels or the proliferating tabloid newspapers  with hardly any self censoring.  This coincided with huge migrations into cities, unorganized  lifestyles, and dwindling resources. Clearly, our brains and nerve pathways have tried to evolve in all this onslaught.

And so it is reasonable to assume that we are now a people, who are bombarded with information , good and bad,  and each one's ability, to sift through this, learn and process it,  decides how we respond. 

Those who perceive this info as a massive onslaught, will virtually try and force it all in, trying to, as if,  widen the neuronal pathways, in a brain with limited space and a different style of instrinsic information management.

Those whose brains have done the learning over a large period of time, have had time to sift, accept and discard learnings.

But for those who have faced a flood and tried to assimilate it all in a hurry, following the rule of use it or lose it,  the effort would possibly result in an " atrophy of thought "  causing  what , one might possibly call,  Mental Obesity.  An uncontrolled stuffing  of information  in an area meant for less, resluting in overflows, tearing and item destruction.  A virtual  massive widening of wire paths in the brain leading to impaired information processing.

 Just like a glutton stuffing himself year after year, till the heart, the lungs, the liver, the stomach the intestines and pancreas  insist on early retirement in the face of the avalanche of food intake.

Is this what is happening today  amidst folks who exhibit impaired thinking processes and  knee jerk reactions instead of thoughts, and take lives of others ?  Don't like someone's response, throw acid on her face ;  if someone belongs to the wrong gender,  abuse , and even kill;  something not agreeable,  choose extremes  like suicide;  attracted by something, acquire it by hook or by crook, and to hell with everyone and everything else;  get insulted by someone honking from behind, get out of the car and shoot ......   Why do we hear so frequently about women throwing themselves from multistoreyed buildings, sometimes along with children ; what extreme thinking makes them act so ?

There is a school of thought that says all this was happening before. And that we are hearing these things today because of television and real time reporting.

To some extent, yes.  We are not a nation of Saints.  There will always be imbalances, causing crimes in society.   What has changed is the timing.  Something that is disturbing the processing of thought,  caused by the information tornado happening in a brain, not used to handling it all.  It has caused a blurring of the borders between good and evil, with loss of all clarity of thought.

Can we evolve to handle all this avalanche of information ?  I don't know.  The brain prides itself on its property of neural plasticity; the ability of each of our senses to try and fill in for the other, to some extent, when required in dire circumstances, achieving this by self-training the nerve cells and pathways.

But what can one expect when the pathways are strewn with potholes of misdirected information arriving in uncontrolled torrents ? 


  1. It's all sad but true, unfortunately. And, unfortunately, those potholes of misdirected information are growing bigger and deeper by the day. Hope your week is going well

  2. This is an excellent post about a fascinating topic. I was born in 1946. We didn't have television until I was perhaps 13 or 14. Therefore, in my formative years, I was a good student because I wasn't bombarded with information from all sides. I was never in the habit of having either radio or television on all the time. I read books, wrote poetry, and listened to music chosen by my parents or, later, of my own choosing. Although I worked in the newspaper and printing industries, I never felt overwhelmed by information until well past mid-life, when I first owned a computer. Even then, and, yes, even now, I was well aware the computer had an "off" switch. For the most part, I choose which information I will take in.
    However, I know that young people are often not in a position to choose, or have never been told they can choose. Many of them don't know how to find the "off" switch.
    Responsible parents, like my youngest brother and his wife, whose children will be 10 and 12 soon, control the amount and quality of information the children receive. Many, if not most, parents do not monitor the kinds and qualities and quantities of information their children receive.
    You have raised a very interesting point here. Thank you.
    —Kay, Canada

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Important topic! In times like these, when the world is changing so fast. we need to keep our hearts and minds together. Instead many have become addicted to every kind of overload, be it mental, physical or emotional. Thereby losing their greatest asset: a free spirit.

  5. Loved this post. Particularly when I am bewildered with the way technology has taken away simple pleasures of creativity and exploration from our youngsters and everything seems available in a touch screen gadget. One may argue that these devises are knowledge centers but I am not sure. The age old method of trial and error seems the best way to acquire knowledge.