Turning Information Overload into a Positive

Jamie Hughes avatar

by Jamie Hughes |

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Books. Magazines. Journals. Emails. Online articles. Newsletters. Podcasts. Local and cable news. The quantity of information we take in daily is impressive — overwhelming, even. According to a 2009 report from researchers at the University of California, San Diego, the average American consumed about 105,000 words per day, or 23 words per second, a decade ago. That’s the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of data, “a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop in a week.” The study is old, so it’s reasonable to assume that this figure has increased significantly since then.

As a person with the strength of “input,” according to the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, I love taking in new information, storing it, and finding a way to put it to good use. My brain is full of all kinds of ephemera: from what triboluminescence is (the process that makes Wint-O-Green Life Savers spark when eaten in the dark), to the name of that monkey-lizard creature that served Jabba the Hutt in “Return of the Jedi” (Salacious B. Crumb), to who taught Tom Petty to play guitar (The Eagles’ Don Felder).

And believe it or not, I find a use for most of the knowledge I acquire. From everyday conversations to an article or column I write, all that data and information comes in mighty handy — plus, I’m in high demand on team trivia nights. It makes a girl feel all warm and fuzzy.

Cognitive impairment is one of the gnarliest challenges multiple sclerosis can throw at us. According to the National MS Society, “more than half of all people with MS will develop problems with cognition,” and that can include anything from information processing (dealing with information gathered by the five senses), to verbal fluency (finding the right word), and memory (acquiring, retaining, and retrieving new information). That’s why I’m always looking for new information and faster and better ways of acquiring and storing it. I recently discovered “retrieval practice,” a learning technique that is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance in schools around the country.

Join the MS forums: an online community especially for patients with MS.

Retrieval practice is a method used to retain the information we take in. Unlike reading a social media post — something that’s easily consumed and quickly forgotten — the process of acquiring knowledge should prompt a change in long-term memory. We should be able to access what we’ve learned and apply the information to future problems or scenarios. That’s how you build a strong matrix of information as well as solid recall and critical thinking skills.

One of the techniques mentioned in the article is “connect four.” It works like this: Take four seemingly unrelated topics and try to find as many links between them as you can. The cross association keeps information stored in different “cubbyholes” in your brain and helps strengthen those connections, so things don’t slip away easily.

My family has also begun a dinnertime ritual we call “Tell Me One Thing You Learned Today.” Each person has to share a new fact, skill, or piece of intel they’ve learned. That could be decimal places, a Bible verse, or a fun fact about a period of world history. Personal insights also count. The ritual is helping us to be more mindful about those 34 gigabytes we’re taking in and more intentional about committing those pieces of knowledge to long-term memory. And it’s just darned fun to share new information with people you love.

I highly recommend MS patients look into retrieval practice and other brain-training techniques. Find what works for you and go for it! After all, you’re the primary beneficiary of any work you do, and who knows, you might just win a few bucks on trivia night as a bonus.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Catherine avatar


When my children were in elementary school, I always asked as they came in from the bus..."What did you learn today?". It could be academic, behavior of other people, useless trivia, how to treat someone or even something learned about themselves. I received so many varied answers that sparked a world of conversations. That was my favorite part of school.

Jamie Hughes avatar

Jamie Hughes

We do the exact same thing in our home. We're not quite to the "varied answers" stage yet as the house is all boys besides me, but baby steps, right!?


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