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Intellectual Obesity Crisis - Information Addiction is Corroding Our Thinking

We have evolved to crave sugar because it is a scarce source of energy. But when we learned to produce sugar on an industrial scale, our love for sweets suddenly became a burden. The same thing happened with information. In the age of information overload, our once focused curiosity now distracts us. This has led to an epidemic of intellectual obesity, filling our minds with harmful junk information.

The analogy between information and sugar is not just rhetorical. In 2019, researchers at Berkeley found that information activates the brain's dopamine reward system in the same way as food. In simple terms, the brain sees information as a reward; whether the information is accurate or useful, the brain craves it and feels satisfied after consuming it (at least until the craving arises again).

For millions of years, this wasn't a problem because information, like sugar, was scarce and valuable on the savannah. But with the rise of industrial society and the internet, everything changed.

We now live in an attention economy, where people use various methods to capture our interest. Low-quality information satisfies our craving for information just as much as high-quality information, so in the digital age, the most effective way to capture attention is to produce a large quantity of low-quality "junk information," a kind of mental fast food. Like fast food, junk information is cheap to produce, satisfying to consume, but low in nutrients. It can be addictive, and excessive consumption is very dangerous.

Junk information is often fake, but it is junk not because it is fake, but because it serves no practical purpose; it doesn't improve your life or enhance your understanding. Even lies can be nutritious; Dostoevsky's novels can teach you more about humanity than any psychology textbook. And most verified facts are of no help to your life or understanding, as Nietzsche said, knowing the chemical composition of water is of no use to a drowning person.

Common types of junk information include gossip, trivia, clickbait, fake content, marketing, churnalism, and meaningless chatter. But in reality, any information that you cannot use is junk information. A typical example on social media is a freshly made burger photo with the caption "Look at what I just made!" but without a recipe, so you can't replicate it at all. Such a picture may make your mouth water for a short time, and it may even motivate you to make a burger, but it has no practical value in your life.

Most people don't think carefully when posting content on social media, and as a result, they post faster than those who are cautious, so trivial information like "Feeling tired, might go to sleep, haha" quickly fills these platforms. However, the most widely spread junk information is the kind that evokes strong emotions, a fact that journalists and commentators are well aware of, as they are most eager to capture your attention.

The easiest emotion to evoke is anger, which only requires a simple oppressive story tailored to a specific political group. And while anger is cheap, it is highly addictive and contagious, becoming the weapon of choice for those seeking attention in the online noise. Even the once-respected New York Times has now turned to "anger bait," using carefully calculated sensational stories to enrage newspaper readers and their political opponents to ensure maximum attention.

Market forces and social pressures have made junk information dominate the internet because it is cheap, easy to produce, and good at capturing attention. Its ubiquity makes it easy for netizens to access, resulting in millions of people now being addicted to it. That's why they keep scrolling through their Twitter timelines, checking Instagram notifications, refreshing YouTube homepages, or continuing to subscribe to The New York Times.

Most of the content you see online today does not improve your understanding of the world. In fact, it may only have negative effects; recent research has shown that people often experience normative dissociation, becoming less clear and less able to process information, and often unable to recall what they just read when browsing social media.

However, despite being "empty calories," junk information is still fascinating. Because your dopamine pathway cannot distinguish between useful and useless information, consuming junk information gives you a sense of learning satisfaction—it makes you feel mentally nourished—even though you've just stuffed a bunch of virtual popcorn into your brain.

Ultimately, this addiction to useless information leads to what I call "intellectual obesity." Just as eating too much junk food makes your body bloated, consuming too much junk information makes your brain bloated, filled with fragmented nonsense that distracts your attention and leaves you confused. Unable to distinguish between useful and useless information, you worry about trivial matters and feel angry about lies. These worries and anger make you consume more junk information, and while you consume it, you can't do anything else: learn, focus, or even think. The result is a clogged stream of consciousness; your brain becomes as hardened as arteries.

We now live in a state of continuous distraction caused by addiction to useless information, a distraction so powerful that we don't even realize we are being distracted. You may read this article, briefly consider the impact of junk information on you, and then continue aimlessly scrolling through Twitter.

But before you do that, let's try to find some solutions.

The most direct way to improve your information intake is to cultivate a habit of metacognition; be aware of what you are paying attention to. When you find yourself involuntarily picking up your phone or lingering on the Twitter icon, try the "10-10-10 rule": ask yourself, how will I view this information in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years if I consume it? Doing this may help you realize that the fleeting pleasure brought by junk information is so short-lived and insignificant in your life that it is not worth wasting time on.

If your cravings cannot be overcome by reason alone, consider rearranging your lifestyle to completely remove junk information from your life. The method I used to overcome "intellectual obesity" was to strive to become an excellent writer. Writing requires you to filter out useless information because you have a responsibility not to provide junk to readers. Writing also forces you to regularly disconnect from all information so that you can have a dialogue with your own thoughts. This regular self-communication helps you stay awake in a world that constantly tries to distract you.

Ultimately, you need to find the information intake method that works for you. But if you insist on consuming everything the internet offers endlessly, remember that the end of this information feast is bitter: at the end of your life, when you look back on your regrets, you probably won't say, "Wow, I wish I had spent more time online." Instead, you won't remember that tweet from a stranger about their preference for pasta over pizza, or that GIF that made you laugh for a few seconds, or even that Time article that made you angry for a minute. When you notice the countless voids left by these pieces of junk information in your memory, you will understand that it is not you consuming them, but rather them consuming you.

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