Is information overload affecting memory, creativity, productivity?

Businesswoman Reading Newspaper Image

Photo Illustration by P. Bouweraerts

Long-winded, forwarded email threads are beaming in, texts cheerfully dinging with new requests, and chains of data-filled pages need to be sorted — the information darting … incoming, is enough to make someone hustle to duck under their desk.

Does internet connectedness and the resulting information overload affect productivity, critical thinking and creativity for those whose work involves a computer?

Patricia Bouweraerts Author Byline

Early adopters and late adopters adjust to tech tools differently

WorkplaceStory asked Pai-Ling Yin, Ph.D., associate professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship and director of the Technology Commercialization Initiative at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business whether the next wave of computer applications development will be pointed toward filtering all of this information.

Pai-Ling Yin, Ph.D. Image

Pai-Ling Yin, Ph.D.

“Yes, that is why so much has been invested by Amazon into Alexa, Google into Google Voice Assistant via Google Home, Apple into Siri, and the new virtual assistants that are popping up,” she said.

Individuals also adapt to new technological tools at different rates, which affects both the amount of information overload they experience and the added software utilities they take advantage of for sifting through massive amounts of media to get to the most useful information. In the widely accepted theory of Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers listed the categories of technology adopters from those who most quickly latch on to new technology; innovators, to the next group, early adopters. Following these two, the next categories are early majority, late majority, and finally laggards, who are most resistant to accept novel technologies.

Do innovators and early adopters have a harder time with information overload than the late majority, or is it the opposite?

“Innovators and early adopters are more likely to be caught up in the addiction to information, while later adopters might benefit by well-developed virtual assistants to protect them from overload,” Professor Yin said. “However, later adopters generally by definition do not benefit from the extra information and utilities that early adopters can access and leverage.”

The workplace is a fusion of innovators, early adopters, early and late majority, and those who are more resistant to technological changes. They are all adapting to an increasing amount of information. And how much information are we talking about?

“(The) average office worker receives 121 emails a day and sends out 40 business emails a day,” wrote Heinz Tschabitscher on regarding the Email Statistics Report, 2017-2021, by The Radicati Group, Inc., a technology market research firm in Palo Alto, Calif.

Texts add to the information mix. Eighty percent of professionals use text for work, 79 percent of bosses are supportive of employees using business-related texts, and more than one-third of professionals say they typically respond to a text within 10 minutes, according to Kenneth Burke on Text Request.

Researchers are addressing how the increasing number of messages and digitally-delivered information change the type of thought processes individuals use, and affect their attention span.

Minds start to think like machines

Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., is the Duke School of Medicine Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience. His pioneering work in brain-computer interface has led to technology that enabled a paralyzed man with a type of exoskeleton suit to kick the opening ball of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Nicolelis expressed in a 2017 article for the Wall Street Journal his concern regarding the unintended consequences of brains interfacing with machines.

“Connected to a computer, the brain adapts almost at once, taking on characteristics of the machine and mimicking its binary decision-making process,” Dr. Nicolelis wrote. ”Our brains don’t even require a direct connection to perform this trick. Continuous access to computers can have this effect. A study has shown that if people know information is available on the internet, they begin forgetting it — including their address and phone number. This may seem benign, but it’s symptomatic of a problem that is already costing lives.”

He wrote that when humans rely on computers, their ability to do their job without the machine lessens.

“In 2011, a Federal Aviation Administration report suggested ‘automation addiction’ had led to 51 accidents in the previous five years, resulting in hundreds of deaths,” Nicolelis wrote. “Central aspects of humanity — sympathy, intuition, creativity, improvisation, artistic and social skills — could be curtailed or even erased by the brain as a result of it’s attempt to copy the behavior of digital computers.”

Further, the question comes up … is someone who sits at a computer for eight or more hours a day at risk for diminished creativity, sympathy, and innovative ideas as they mimic binary, “yes or no” information processing?

Remembering where information is, but not the information

In an experiment at Columbia University, student study participants were asked whether there are countries with one color only in their flag.

One part of the experiment tested participants not only on the main question, but also on which of five computer folders the solution could be found.

“The answer surprised the researchers: People were better able to recall the folder,” wrote Johnathan Davis in the International Business Times.

This is called transactive memory.

“We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found,” Davis wrote. “I love watching baseball, (study author Betsy) Sparrow said in (giving an) example of transactive memory. But I know my husband knows baseball facts, so when I want to know something I ask him, and I don’t bother to remember it.”

Scientists have found that the human brain also forgets on purpose — a kind of overwriting of memories for outdated or obsolete information to better remember new information. The brain also forgets so it can form a general big picture instead of keeping track of many superfluous details. Seeing the overall picture helps in making effective decisions, wrote David Nield in “Forgetting Things Could Actually Be Making You Smarter,” on

“The researchers also think the amount of forgetting we do could depend on the environment, with a faster pace of change requiring a faster pace of forgetting, too,” Nield wrote.

Continued internet use compounds memory dependency

“In a new (2016) article published in the journal Memory, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found that ‘cognitive offloading’, or the tendency to rely on things like the internet as an aide-mémoire, increases after each use,” according to a press release posted on

The study was conducted by Aaron Benjamin, Sean Stone and Benjamin Storm.

“The results revealed that participants who previously used the internet to gain information were significantly more likely to revert to Google for subsequent questions than those who relied on memory,” according to the press release. “Participants also spent less time consulting their own memory before reaching for the internet; they were not only more likely to do it again, they were likely to do it much more quickly. Remarkably 30 percent of participants who previously consulted the internet failed to even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.”

A situation in practice for which dependency on the internet as an external memory base may be an area for concern happens when employees make formal presentations in front of groups, such as at company meetings or for clients.

Reasoning and inference-based learning

Daphna Shohamy, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Columbia University in the Department of Psychology, and at the Zuckerman Institute.

She said in a YouTube video report for WNYC radio, that there are two types of learning centers in the brain:

  • Habitual learning that we are less aware of enables automatic selection of the right thing to do in situations — a process centered in the striatum
  • Reasoning, inference-based flexible learning and short-term memory is undertaken by the hippocampus

In the video demonstration, podcaster and author Manoush Zomorodi’s brain is scanned in the lab as she plays a computer game first thing in the morning. It tests her ability to learn, remember and make decisions. She returns after a busy day of work to repeat the experiment.

“My hippocampus, the part that purposefully actively learns, got tired — not a huge surprise — but the striatum, that habitual automatic part, it actually worked better. It kind of took over and that was unexpected,” Zomorodi said in the video report. “And it made me wonder, is this why so many of us keep scrolling after a long day, why we compulsively keep tapping away even though we feel exhausted.”

Could decisions made during overtime hours become more automatic? The above demonstration points to the possibility of a “tired brain” absorbing less inference-based information on which to base decisions.

Too much information complicates efficient decision-making

Daniel Levitin, Ph.D. Image

Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D.

“The human brain can really only attend to a few things at once, so I think we are reaching a point where we have to figure out how to filter information so that we can use it more intelligently and not be distracted by irrelevant information,” said neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, Ph.D. in an interview on “Studies show that people who are given more information in certain situations tend to make poorer decisions because they become distracted or overwhelmed by the irrelevant information.”

One way to handle information overload is to externalize some of the information.

“Take anything that is a nagging voice in your head and write it down,” Levitin said. “Get it out on paper and externalize it. Depending on how busy you are, you might do this once a week, or once or twice a day. But another example is if you hear on the weather report that it is going to rain, why try to keep it in your head to remember to bring your umbrella? Put the umbrella by the door so you don’t have to.”

Another suggestion Levitin makes is to take a break every one or two hours.

“There is a reason that air traffic controllers are required to take them — they have a duty cycle of working for 60 to 120 minutes and then break for 15 to 30 minutes,” he said. “It is law because it has been shown to work. You need to give your brain a chance to process and consolidate the information that it has been dealing with and reset itself. This is called the brain’s ‘day-dreaming mode,’ when we are not actively engaged in a task but letting the brain process the information it has acquired.”

Innovative ideas often happen during the day-dreaming mode.

“Yes, much of our creative activity comes from there — the discovery of the benzene ring by August Kekulé, for example, and also Francis Crick’s dream about the double helix of DNA,” he added.

Information overload affects productivity

Surveys of workers reveal that they think too much information slows productivity.

A 2010 survey of 1,700 office-based employees in the U.S., China, South Africa, the U.K. and Australia found that productivity suffered when the workers couldn’t sort through the overabundance of information.

The survey commissioned by LexisNexis, a provider of workflow products and services found data points including the following:

  • Workers in all five countries reported spending 51 percent of their day receiving and managing information, instead of actually using information to perform job tasks
  • Internationally, between one third and one half of the information received was not important to pertinent job tasks
  • Sixty percent of U.S. workers indicated that the constant flow of emails makes it harder to focus
  • U.S. employees, 91 percent, said that to cope with excessive email they deleted or discarded work information without fully reading it
  • Ninety-two percent of American workers said that they needed to search for old emails or documents once a week, and 90 percent reported that not finding the right information when they needed it wasted time

The employee communications and social advocacy tech company SocialChorus conducted a 2016 survey of 331 communications and human resources professionals, finding that companies were concerned about the amount of emails employees received — from their own corporate messages, to advertising, to dentist appointment reminders, and more.

“In fact, one of the biggest obstacles identified by respondents (54 percent) is ‘information overload’ and the resulting difficulty in capturing employees’ attention,” according to The Technology Gap in Corporate Communications report. “Moreover, 71 percent of respondents reported that their employees don’t read email and other content, and 36 percent said that they’re unhappy with the format in which most content is delivered.”

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s well-known guideline recommends “If you want to receive less email, send less email.”

Another practical and human-centered approach to information overload was offered by creator and managing director of SmartWisdom Ltd. Jonathan Kemp at a TEDx talk in 2015 at City, University of London.

He centered himself with the question, “What three things do I value most about day-to-day life?” Kemp came up with three top factors; enjoying the moment and smelling the occasional rose, spending time with people and enjoying their company, and being courteous to people with smiles and laughter.

“Do I need information for any of that,” he added. “No.”

Focusing attention directly on the rose during the walk home from work, or time with a co-worker, or the team’s laughter gives an individual balance that lightens times of too much information. In addition, an empowering technique is to reframe the terminology.

“Being really proactive and being really practical, so in the language — is it information overload or is it information opportunity,” Kemp said. “Both are technically correct, and I prefer the latter because the latter empowers me.”

Information opportunity is perhaps an effectively fine-tuned expression to identify a new model of life-data balance.


Additional resources:

Coming articles:

An examination of constant interruption in the workplace
Social media for work — looking into its effect on our reasoning and memory

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