The Nuance

The Neuroscience of News Overload

Information overload from news consumption is linked to both psychological disturbances and groupthink

Markham Heid
Published in
5 min readSep 7, 2021
Photo: Kev Costello / Unsplash

Two hundred years ago — yesterday, in evolutionary terms — most people went days or even weeks without encountering news that did not involve their local community.

Today, the average person is bombarded with novel information about the wider world and its diverse (and often distressing) goings-on.

“Possibly the most prominent characteristic of news consumption today is the sheer amount of information that consumers are exposed to,” wrote the authors of a 2014 study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. “A single Sunday edition of the New York Times today contains more information than typical 19th-century citizens faced in their entire lifetime.”

And it’s not only the volume of information that has exploded. “A second characteristic is the soaring number of sources that provide news via print, broadcast, and interactive modes, spewing text, pictures, and video at any time and in any place,” the study’s authors wrote. “As a result, we must cope with a surfeit of extra information, often unrelated to our interests and needs.”

To some, this glut of information may seem like a good thing. It’s pleasant to imagine that the brain handles information like a prospector panning for gold; the more silt that passes through its sifting pan, the more nuggets it may find.

But this is not quite how the brain works. Beyond a certain point, the mind’s ability to sort and make sense of new information breaks down in problematic ways. “Usefulness of information and human ability to process it declines after an optimal volume of available information is exceeded,” explains Iryna Pentina, PhD, first author of the Computers in Human Behavior study and a professor of marketing at the University of Toledo.

It turns out that the brain is less like a gold prospector and more like an assembly-line worker. If the conveyor belt of information starts whizing by too quickly, the brain can’t keep up.

That situation — which may be all too common today — seems to contribute to a number of unexpected and…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.