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CommunityMental HealthCognitive obesity: You are the data you consume

When I started discovering that my clients suffering from depression, anxiety, memory loss and lowered attention span, I realized it was an outcome of a grander problem and began looking for causes. I found a strong relationship to content exposure on a daily basis, and that led me to develop a theory of cognitive obesity. Cognitive obesity is a product of overconsumption, or consumption that is not optimal for our requirements. It also involves a...
Parisa SoltaniNovember 2, 202110 min
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When I started discovering that my clients suffering from depression, anxiety, memory loss and lowered attention span, I realized it was an outcome of a grander problem and began looking for causes. I found a strong relationship to content exposure on a daily basis, and that led me to develop a theory of cognitive obesity.

Cognitive obesity is a product of overconsumption, or consumption that is not optimal for our requirements. It also involves a lack of processing, mental exercise and deficiency of waste removal.

Cognition refers to mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension. The processes include thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem-solving. These higher-level functions of the brain encompass language, imagination, perception, and planning.

Obesity is an issue impacting 30 percent of the adult population in the UAE alone. Life span, social interaction, employment opportunities and quality of life is severely diminished.

So, what does cognitive obesity diminish? With physical obesity, there is plenty of information and support available. Dieticians, self-help books and even hypnosis. Just as the pen is mightier than the sword, data overload can hurt more than a triple cheeseburger. Information effecting cognition can be far more harmful although unseen. It is more delicate and difficult than food and exercise to navigate, but it can be done. 

The probability of becoming cognitively obese is increased as we are bombarded with addictive data, designed to harness attention and elicit an emotional response. None of the above cognitive processes are used with the data we consume, generally. Research supports that we are eroding those cognitive abilities and overburdening the working memory, leading to diseases such as dementia and depression. There is a choice however, even though choice typically equals inconvenience. 

Social media algorithms are designed to analyze and track everyday activity, from purchases to likes, leading to specifically tailored information delivered to you. This ever-flowing stream of information is overburdening your working or short-term memory. The brain is wired to recall and use information received. The working memory holds information long enough to manipulate it or use it and can hold less than 10 items at once. Continuously barraging it with more information than we can process works to the detriment of our memory, concentration and the ability to produce timely results.  Overwhelming your brain with data impacts your neuroplasticity and this has an immense effect on attention and cognitive function. 

Just as the human mouth is designed to hold only bite-sized pieces before you chew or you will choke, so is the brain. 

Similar to our metabolic rate, cognitive ability differs between individuals. Calories in does not always equal calories out. There are many variables impacting weight gain, such as genetics, hormones and gender, to name a few, and there are variances within each.  Screening information based on personal processing abilities is imperative. Content may have a different impact on you than your peers, just as eating sugar is different for you than it is for a diabetic.

And when did “binge” eating become okay? Right, it hasn’t. Why has binge-watching, or extreme data consumption, become a societal norm? It is encouraged, promoted regularly in the media and even joked about. It is a social conditioning mechanism and conditioning is the application of programming. Are you the programmer of what your mind is being conditioned to? All forms of social conditioning are forms of immunization against consciousness or mindfulness. In few instances it is good. In most it is not. 

Data must be discerned, digested and processed. Instead, we are becoming cognitively stagnant, accepting and regurgitating information, sounding smart, but not creating through our own thoughts or experiences. It is like painting by numbers; it will never replace the true creative process. 

Take this quote, which I came across on a hotel ceiling. 

“They say the darkest nights make the brightest stars.”

Initially, I thought it to be sweet and correct. By the morning I looked outside and realized a simple truth. The brightest star we can see is the sun, which still shines in light. One does not have to go through darkness to appreciate light. The brightness of the stars do not depend on perception.  Sometimes, you just need a good night’s sleep and to see things for yourself.  

Inevitably, even if we switch off and unsubscribe, you still speak with friends and news is force-fed in one way or another.

For extreme cases I created a detox data plan allowing my clients to regain their control over data consumption because their own cognitive functions had become impaired or burnt-out. 

It is important to be aware of, and safeguard against the negative impacts of data consumption. The takeaway message here? No matter how much you enjoy carrying a miniature dopamine dispenser in your pocket — or even strapped to your wrist — moderation is the key. Want to improve your cognitive fitness? Stop painting by numbers, screen data, learn to exercise your cognitive processes,  live consciously and create your own life. 

• Tune in to The Livehealthy Podcast on Wednesday, November 3 to hear Parisa speak about cognitive obesity. 

Parisa Soltani

Parisa has a neuroscience degree and is a counsellor of Integrated Psychotherapy, works in psychological and physical trauma rehabilitation with a speciality in acquired brain injuries and autism and is currently working on her PhD on the therapeutic implications of indoor skydiving on the brain, specifically cerebral palsy and ADHD.. She's also a personal trainer, yoga and barre instructor and lives on a boat in Abu Dhabi.

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