Words, words, words . . .

A recent study by the University of California, San Diego, estimates that the total amount of words “consumed” in the United States – where this consumption is from televisions, computers and other media and does not include people simply talking to one another – has more than doubled from 4,500 trillion in 1980 to 10,845 trillion in 2008. If images are added to the approximately 100,500 words per day we are exposed to, then it is estimated that we are bombarded with the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of information each day. You can read more about the study here.

Some academics are worrying about the possible adverse effects of this deluge of information. The psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell, an expert on attention-deficit disorder, has suggested that people who spend too much time on their laptops and Blackberrys “are so busy processing information from all directions they are losing the tendency to think and to feel… People are sacrificing depth and feeling and becoming cut off and disconnected from other people.” Other researchers, however, dismiss such concerns. According to Amanda Ellison, of Durham University’s neuroscience research unit: “it is quite difficult to actually overload the brain because it can contain a lot more information than was previously thought.” She also points out that: “There is no one memory centre. Visual information is stored in one part of the brain and audio information is stored in another.”

Colin Blakemore, a professor of neuroscience at Oxford and Warwick, speculates that an increased exposure to information might even be beneficial. “One of the things we have learnt over the past 20 years is that the brain does have a capacity to grow and increase in size depending on how it is used. Perhaps the personal experience of having to deal with all of this information will cause new nerve cells to be born and create new nerve connections in the brain.”

Such speculation is not new amongst philosophers. Daniel Dennett is perhaps the most prominent advocate of the idea that with the advent of language a form of natural selection amongst ideas or “memes” was born, and that this competition amongst ideas and words has crucially shaped our mental faculties, rendering our minds radically distinct from other, language-less species. Dennett speaks of our brains being “invaded” and “parasitized” by words and claims that competition amongst memes is “so swift and powerful that a single generation of its design improvements can now dwarf the R-and-D efforts of millions of years of evolution by natural selection.” (A nice introduction to Dennett’s ideas can be read here.)

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