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It is Christmas: beware of information overload

In the current issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics Giovanni A. Fava and Jenny Guidi (University of Bologna) raise a problem that becomes particularly manifest during this time of the year, but that is actually an important component of our everyday life: information overload.

Affluent, technological societies provide an unprecedented range of stimulus conditions which for many people result in subjective overload. These conditions include urbanization, certain occupations, traffic jams, media messages, and a vast number of novel, ambiguous and attractive information outputs. Information overload may result in excessive cortical and autonomic arousal, which may predispose to or precipitate cognitive impairment, unpleasant feeling tone, and, possibly, contribute to a general susceptibility to both physical and psychiatric disorders.

Crowding, an experiential state resulting from the interaction of high physical density, interference with ongoing activities, individual differences in personal space, frequency and duration of exposure, may result in subjective discomfort, social disorganization, and sustained or repeated physiological arousal, that may contribute to human morbidity, particularly as to cardiovascular diseases. Noise, one of the main sources of sensory overload for city dwellers and for a substantial proportion of industrial workers, may induce feelings of annoyance and irritability. Increasing the information input beyond the person’s capacity is one of the major factors contributing to the subjectively perceived job pressure and dissatisfaction. The condition of overload is by no means always imposed by external factors, but may be self-induced.

Overcommitment was defined by Lipowski as “a state of role and information overload due in part to unwillingness or inability to set limits to one’s pursuit of activities rewarded by approval, success, promotion, money and other inducements that bolster self-esteem” . The social environment offers abundant opportunities and rewards for ceaseless striving. The academic field provides an excellent example of the interaction between personality and social factors in producing overcommitment.

Finally, affluent societies expose their members to an overabundance of stimuli capable of arousing attractiveness, as a result of an economic system striving for creation of ever-new wants. Yet, economic and/or time constraints prevent many from responding to attractive stimuli by goal-directed action and consummation.

Lipowski, in the seventies, anticipated trends and phenomena which have become more and more evident in the following decades. Surprisingly, however, the scientific interest, whether medical or psychological or management related, for the concept of information overload has not grown proportionally.

In particular, the society then did not have the widespread diffusion of the meta-medium, the computer, which potentially combines TV, book, radio, typewriter and game console into one interface. It has been estimated that members of the Internet generation may spend as much as 20 years of their life in front of, interacting with, and connected to this medium.

The information abundance which is available on a scale previously unknown to civilization may lead to a crisis of information navigation, retrieval and reliability, as well as to cognitive and behavioral disturbances, particularly in the younger generation. For instance, in our daily confrontation with information overload, when we are taking care of our e-mail, we spend most of our time deleting useless and unwanted information.

The amount of scientific information in the medical field is continuously increasing. Clinicians find increasing difficulties in identifying the papers which are relevant to their practice.

In recent years, there has been a progressive demand on free availability of scientific resources on the internet. This follows the principle that the knowledge conveyed in these publications is a public good and should therefore be broadened as much as possible. The authors of this editorial wished that the quest for the common good were the basis for these positions. Public access to medical journals means that authors will have to pay for at least part of the expenses. While not all authors could afford that, grant supported studies and publications loaded with conflict of interest would have no big problems with it, even though subsidizing publications with money for research is questionable.

Interestingly the problem of conflict of interest has not been adequately addressed by the free access movement. The subscription-based, independent journal becomes increasingly important in the setting of information overload. Individual and institutional choices are in fact the only possible way of preserving intellectual freedom, which is crucial to true scientific progress.

Giovanni Andrea Fava | alfa
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