Our world is awash in an unprecedented volume of data. Nearly every second of every day, we’re exposed to an endless stream of news, knowledge, memes, reels, and photos that compete for our attention and keep us glued to screens – from tablets and smartphones to computers and TVs. In fact, across all platforms, it’s estimated that we consume nearly 12 hours of information each day.
The problem, however, is that our brains – as remarkable as they are – aren’t necessarily meant to process all of this incoming information. In fact, scientists are suggesting that the reason so many of us might feel exhausted all the time is due to information overload.
How Much Information Are We Consuming?
Information scientists have found that the average person living today processes as much as 74 gigabytes (GB) of information a day through TV, computers, cell phones, tablets, billboards, and many other gadgets. That’s the equivalent of watching 16 movies, reading over 200,000 words, or scrolling on TikTok for nearly 200 hours.
And every year, our brains take in 5 percent more information than the previous year. To further put this into context, consider this: only 500 years ago, 74 GB of information would be what a highly educated person consumed in a lifetime, through books and stories. Furthermore, in 2011 alone, we took in five times as much information every day as people did in 1986 – the equivalent of 174 newspapers.
But we’re not just consuming large swaths of information; we’re also generating it. In fact, each of us individually is generating more information than ever before in human history – in the form of photos, videos, messages, digital transactions, etc.
According to experts, we’ve created a world with 300 exabytes (300,000,000,000,000,000,000 pieces) of human-made information. If each of those pieces of information were written on a 3-by-5-inch index card and then spread out side by side, just one person’s share of information would cover every square inch of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
How Much Data Can Our Brain Actually Process?
Our brains are remarkable, and there’s a reason why they’re often compared to computers. Composed of approximately 100 billion neurons – each of which is connected to 10,000 other neurons – our brain carries information that travels up to an impressive 268 miles per hour. It uses 25 percent of all the energy our body requires each day, and it can generate about 23 watts of power (enough to power a lightbulb!).
What we sometimes forget, however, is that our brain is a living, active organ. Unlike a machine or computer that passively responds to inputs and processes data, the neurons in our brain are living cells with a metabolism. They need oxygen and glucose to survive – and when they’re processing an onslaught of information nonstop, they can easily get tired.
Every photo we see on Instagram, tweet we read on Twitter, status update we view on Facebook, or text message we receive from a friend is input that our brain has to expend energy processing. Given that we consume roughly 16 movies worth of data each and every day, it’s no wonder we might be exhausted at the end of the day.
Furthermore, our brain also has processing limitations or bandwidth restrictions. While it can process 11 million bits of information every second, our conscious mind can only process about 120 bits per second (bps). This is essentially a “speed limit” for the amount of information we can pay conscious attention to at any one time. For instance, in order to understand one person speaking to us, we need to process 60 bits of information per second. With a limit of 120 bps, this means we can barely understand two people talking to us at the same time.
Even though our conscious mind isn’t able to fully retain every single detail or piece of data we consume, our subconscious brain is still working overtime by “digesting” the continuous flow of information.
How Much Data Will Be Generated in the Future?
The amount of data being generated is only going to increase in the years to come. In 2021, the world created, captured, and consumed 74 zettabytes of data (1 zettabyte is equal to 1 billion terabytes or 1 trillion gigabytes). For reference, most movies are around 2 gigabytes in size. With one single zettabyte of storage, we could hold roughly 500 billion movies.
Here’s another way of looking at it (as recorded here):
Kilobytes (KB) = 1,000 bytes = a paragraph of a text document
Megabytes (MB) = 1,000 kilobytes = a small novel
Gigabytes (GB) = 1,000 megabytes = Beethoven’s 5th symphony
Terabytes (TB) = 1,000 gigabytes = all the X-rays in a large hospital
Petabytes (PB) = 1,000 terabytes = half the contents of all U.S. academic research libraries
Exabytes (EB) = 1,000 petabytes = about ⅕ of the words people have ever spoken
Zettabytes (ZB) = 1,000 exabytes = as much information as there are grains of sand on all the world’s beaches
Volumes of data of this size are difficult to fathom. But if we think about the amount of data already being generated every day by humans through communications alone, the numbers start to make sense. For instance, over 41 million messages are sent on WhatsApp every day, over 650 million new Tweets are posted every day, and there are about 333 billion emails sent each day.
While our brains only have a limited capacity to process and store information, computers are becoming increasingly adept at processing large volumes of data – fast. High performance computing in particular is being used to meet the growing demand for data processing. And the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G is contributing to the rise of micro data centers to help store and process the influx of data. Unlike our brains, these machines not only don’t get fatigued, but can perform quadrillions of calculations per second – every second of every day.
The hope is that these high performance computers, along with continued positive advancements in artificial intelligence, can assist human beings in processing and leveraging the vast amounts of information entering our lives on a daily basis.