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'Brain fatigue' caused by information overload

6 Comments
By Michael Hoffman

The human brain is nothing much – a wrinkled little mass, 1,300-odd grams, 1,200-odd cubic centimeters, 60 percent fat, the rest mostly water, protein, carbohydrates and salts. How we get from this to science, philosophy, art, desire and the coordinated bodily movements necessary to satisfy desire, is a mystery far beyond the scope of this story.

Marvelous as the brain is, it has limits. President magazine (July 29) warns of “brain fatigue.”

Takehiko Fujino, professor emeritus of medicine at Kyushu University, says it’s a relatively new expression. That’s surprising. Who doesn’t know it, who doesn’t feel it, who doesn’t instinctively, if not scientifically, understand it? He implies, presumably, a gap between colloquial and medical usage. Colloquially speaking, a good night’s sleep, a holiday, a change of pace is all your tired brain needs. When they don’t help, you’re in potential medical trouble, Fujino says. He mentions “information overload” – and here, certainly, we are into a new era. Never has the brain had so much information flung at it so fast, so randomly, so chaotically, events succeeding each other with dizzying rapidity, their consequence upon us before we know what hit us. Never have our 86 billion-odd nerve cells twitched so convulsively. They’re getting weary. But information keeps pouring in. What should we do about it? President asks Fujino.

“Brain fatigue” became current in medical circles around 15 years ago, Fujino says – 2007, roughly speaking, six years into the brave new world spawned by the “9/11” terrorist attacks on the U.S. Reeling already, the brain in 2007 had to assimilate, along with much else, an escalation of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Iran’s announcement that it was producing enriched uranium, 32 dead at a Virginia university in what was then (but is no longer) the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, devastating heat worldwide, and in Japan,  the assassination by a gangster of Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito.

Stress, Fujino says, generally calls to mind more personal problems – pressure at work, tension at home, and so on. There’s that too, of course. Personal or global, the brain reaches a point of saturation and begins to drags its feet, so to speak. Consciousness blurs. You may not notice at first. A good indication is the sense of taste. Where one spoonful of sugar sufficed before, you now need two. Taste buds are desensitized. Other seasonings must be increased in proportion – an excess that produces the familiar symptoms: weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes and on into the worst-case scenarios – cancer, heart attacks, brain hemorrhages. Japan’s leading killers, says Fujino, are lifestyle diseases, and most of them he boils down to one root cause: brain fatigue.

Social and intellectual life is also blunted, he says. You grope in vain for the right word; comprehension grows fuzzy. Tension rises, frustration mounts.  

So what to do? You can turn off the media and pretend nothing’s happening out there. Well, you can’t, really, barring a degree of isolation hardly consistent with normal life. You can tell yourself that the planet and the species have weathered other crises in other times, equally if not more jolting to the brain than the current state of things – acute global warming, a pandemic, a sudden war that seems a throwback to a more savage world order, a shuddering global economy and, meanwhile, ever-accelerating technological progress that, though arguably beneficial, demand their own psychic-energy-consuming adaptations. The hopeful view is: we’re an adaptable species. We’ve an adaptable brain. We’ll emerge stronger.

The brain can adapt to anything, it may be – except fatigue. Be kind to your brain, Fujino counsels. He addresses individuals who, alarmed by physical deterioration, take themselves in hand somewhat too severely. Craving food, they diet; long for a drink, they deny themselves; yearn for repose, they force themselves through an exercise routine. Counterproductive,  Fujino says. You only tire your brain the more.

He cites the Aesop fable of the sun and the north wind. Both seek to strip a traveler of his cloak. The wind blows furiously; the traveler wraps his cloak more tightly around him. The sun shines gently; the traveler removes his cloak. The sun wins.

Be a sun to your brain, says Fujino. If it wants food, give it food; if drink, drink – in moderation of course; if rest, exercise it later – not too much later, but later. Health food? Good if not force-fed, counter-productive otherwise. Junk food? Okay in moderation. Infants are weaned slowly. So should adults be. Of his own patients, he says, “They tell me, ‘Ever since you told me it’s okay to eat my fill, I no longer want to eat so much; when you said I can eat sweets if I want, I no longer want them.’” There’s a lesson there somewhere. But today’s sun is not the sun Aesop knew. It’s a glowering, menacing harbinger of yet worse heat to come. The brain cries for rest and we would indulge it if we could. But circumstances are not propitious.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.” 

© Japan Today

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6 Comments
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Might I suggest a trip to a Thai beach and a nice spliff

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Modern life is complete BS... throw away your TV for a start

then your smart phones

4 ( +4 / -0 )

"...1,200-odd cubic centimeters..."

If we look at he fossil record, we see that the H. sapiens cranial capacity circa 100 kya was ~1500cc. Contemporaneous H. neanderthalensis' cranial capacity averaged 1600cc with strong hints that a Neanderthal variant may have reached 1700cc before extinction (arguably at our hands) claimed they and their kin. The reasons for this "Human cranial shrinkage" as physical anthropologists call it, are not clear and not really pertinent here. Here the term is 'brain fatigue' from 'too much information' but the examples of the 'information' would suggest a different diagnosis for disordered thinking and that would be 'traumatic shock' secondary to 'stress' caused by the content of the information, not the volume, per se.

The average news reader/viewer is hit several times a day with tragedy, loss, horror, disaster and each hit, whether conscious of not, creates stress in the 'sensitive' vicarious witness. Years of this may have the same effect as high school football or soccer has on the young brain and produces an actual physical deficit in the functional neural mechanics of the complex network of synapses that produces our 'minds'. Again, not 'fatigue' as such, but stress induced trauma which we might call CTSD, chronic traumatic stress disorder. And, perhaps Wobot and TrevorPeace above offer a viable solution although akin to the idea of the Ostrich meme. What to do? Many seem to feel that poisoning the brain with an organic embalment is the way. America and other places are waking up to one solution that seems to work without embalming the brain and liver and are legalizing it. As the old Chinese CURSE goes, "May you live in interesting times!" And here we are...

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Maybe that brain fatigue is just only simple a LongCovid mass symptom. There always has been quite an information overload. Look into the old history and science notes or books from very ancient times, Persians, Greek antique, Roman Empire, all the famous world explorers like Columbus, DaGama , the scientists like Gauss, Newton, Curie, Einstein and so many other famous ones more. They all had such an immense and even greater information overload to be exposed to and managed to make great research and discoveries. I don’t think that it is a valid theory, blaming IT, Internet, Smartphones and all that for causing significant widespread brain fatigue.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

@Wobot - and your computer and Internet access.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Modern life is complete BS... throw away your TV for a start

8 ( +11 / -3 )

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