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Often in films and television shows when a person's brain is 'injected' with more information than it can handle, they suffer from immense pain.

What would actually happen if you did supply a human brain with too much information? Would it act like a processor and break up the information or would it 'clog up the pipes'?

This can be in two forms - directly and sensory.

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    $\begingroup$ Is the information in your scenario injected via the senses or “directly”? Anyway, sensory overload seems to be a relevant term. $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft Oct 19 '14 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ Consider that there is a lot more going on all the time, even within your ability to notice, than you consciously recognize, most of which goes by "unnoticed". $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 19 '14 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ This is pretty simplistic, but think of it this way: in theory your brain can contain any amount of information but can only process a very limited amount of it at a time. So, yeah, pipes can get clogged up. However, the mechanism of information injection is up to you and you can decide that the data stored bypasses the subject's attention mechanism. Of course, in a situation like this it would require more effort to retrieve any specific fact. $\endgroup$ – lea Oct 19 '14 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ I think what happens is dementia. $\endgroup$ – overactor Oct 19 '14 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ As we are in constant triaged overload every moment already, I think the idea they are conveying is likely the rapid, forced generation of synapse pathways, and not just an "exposure" to the information. Actually forcing rapid generation of synaptic pathways may or may not be painful (but we lack nerves in the brain, so... probably not), but the movie would be rather anti-dramatic if the character suddenly received a forced "upload" and didn't respond other than to say "Oh, yeah. Got it." $\endgroup$ – zxq9 Oct 21 '14 at 5:06

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Your brain receives more information than you can handle all the time. For instance, right now, your entire computer screen is within your field of view but you're ignoring all but a word or so of it at a time. So the (rather boring) answer is that nothing unusual happens when you receive more information than you can process because it's the absolutely normal state for a brain to be in.

For the classic example, see this experiment by Simons and Chabris.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm glad you pointed this out and I think it's the correct answer. On the other hand, the question asks about "injecting" information into the brain, which might correspond to directly stimulating sensory areas that are used to having their input filtered before receiving it. They wouldn't necessarily have any orderly way of dealing with excessive input, so the results could still be interesting... though I suspect they'd mostly involve confusion and excitotoxic lesions. $\endgroup$ – octern Oct 19 '14 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ But the brain can handle this level of overload. When our senses transmit information to the brain, they compactify the information electronically and fire it down the nervous system to the brain. Whatever arrives is what the brain processes. So I'm not sure I can agree with this answer. $\endgroup$ – Epsilon Oct 20 '14 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ @octern glutamate excitotoxicity is indeed what happens when we are overexposed to noise. Same as with a home appliance, a forced increase in current causes damage, not more throughput. $\endgroup$ – Jano Oct 20 '14 at 6:58
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    $\begingroup$ @MBurke Why would I think of a dream as information being injected into the brain? We don't fully understand what dreams are but they're certainly not that. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 20 '14 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @MBurke, saying that dreams generate information from nothing is like saying fantasy writers generate information from nothing. $\endgroup$ – Brian S Oct 20 '14 at 22:28
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I think the answer is we do not know for sure. It seems brain has more capacity to store information that we can get in our lifetime. I think our retrieval system is not perfect so we cannot access the information stored in our brain.

There are proven instances of people who can recall huge amount of information that is fed to their brain (see Kim Peek). There are also people who can also store a lot of 3D information and can retrieve them (see Steven Wiltshire). These people are classified in a different category but the question remains, whether it is their ability to store the information or retrieve them.

It has been shown that people also can retrieve information under hypnotism that they cannot when they are normal.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hey welcome to the site! $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 20 '14 at 2:42
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Depends if you're writing for TV or a book.

On TV, you are pressed for time and would typically be observing the reaction from outside. Then something dramatic, resembling an epileptic seizure with their hair catching on fire is appropriate. You can also go with the matrix-style download, where seizure is followed by a sudden revelation.

In a science fiction book on the other hand, the author will typically focus on the first-person experience of having your brain over-loaded. Or if written from an outside perspective, at least make it more drawn out, like a prolonged illness. It's not uncommon to describe reactions akin to hallucinations and fever-fantasies, where the person is babbling about things the others around him can't see or does not understand. Fred Hoyle's "The Black Cloud" employ this strategy, where the overloaded person is bedridden and eventually dies from the massive re-organisation his brain is undergoing. A change in personality is another common trope in this situation.

You could also go with a more heart-breaking angle where the person feels overloaded and where taking in and processing the information is at the expense of other tasks, like remembering to eat and dress yourself, find your way around a town or being unable to retain personal memories of the day. In short: You portray the onset of dementia.

Again from a strict story-writing perspective, I think you have to first ask what you want to accomplish with the scene where the person is overloaded and where you want the story to go, and only then do you select the proper symptoms of overloading.

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As pointed out already, more information than properly processed is the normal operating mode for the brain.

However, there can be "wrong" information that affects more than its "proper" sensory processing. It is well-known that certain visual stimuli can induce seizures in predisposed people. This occurs as immediate consequence of specific forms of information overload.

Case studies for chronic information overload are currently performed in large scale experiments using so-called "smart phones" which are more recent variants of Internet carrying devices.

Prolonged use as exocephalic prosthesis appears to be cooccurent with low levels of encephalic activity.

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I'd guess the brain would forget most of the information it was provided with, so that it didn't get overloaded and damaged. After all, this is what happens as people get older: as they get more and more information, their memories start to get worse, as though some knowledge needs to be pushed out to make space for the new stuff. Nobody remembers everything that's ever happened to them, because their mind isn't big enough - so if it wasn't big enough to take one big load of information you're trying to provide it with, you'd probably see the same effects.

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    $\begingroup$ "Nobody remembers everything that's ever happened to them, because their mind isn't big enough" > actually, current understanding is that the brain remembers everything, most things just can't be retrieved. Sometimes the right sensory cue (especially scents) can make you remember things you thought you've forgotten a long time ago! $\endgroup$ – Robin Oct 19 '14 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Robin I suppose it depends on how you define "remembering"; if you "remember" something but are never able to recall it, then is it really a memory? $\endgroup$ – chbaker0 Oct 19 '14 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Robin [Citation needed]. You're claiming that I, in some sense, remember everything that I've seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, felt, ... in the last 38 years. That's an absurdly large amount of data. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 19 '14 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby on the contrary...there are people like these: psychologytoday.com/blog/quirks-memory/201301/… and this: cbsnews.com/news/the-gift-of-endless-memory $\endgroup$ – stackErr Oct 20 '14 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ By the by: I don't think everything is stored, though, just that things that are stored aren't "deleted" when forgotten. $\endgroup$ – Robin Oct 20 '14 at 14:54
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I have been reading "Brain Rules" by John Medina and there is paragraph explaining that the human brain can only fire 2% of its total neurons at any given time. If more is attempted fainting may occur as the brain cannot "power" the neurons.

Additionally it is impossible for the brain to multitask attention. The conscious brain can only focus attention on one task at a time and this is why the brain can never be "overloaded" as such. You may get a headache but overloading is hardly happening at the neuron level.

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  • $\begingroup$ Have you considered combining your answers? Or, rather, to delete the one that is just a repeat of this one's last paragraph? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 20 '14 at 22:54
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 I flagged his other answer... When do we get any mods? $\endgroup$ – Beta Decay Oct 21 '14 at 6:31
  • $\begingroup$ @BetaDecay Appointment of mods is in progress, I don't think it will be too much longer. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 21 '14 at 14:28
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As has been mentioned in several of the answers - we typically receive way more sensory input than we can handle. However, typically that's filtered out before it reaches the actual brain. And in many cases the brain simply filters out the information as "noise".

Apparently we have fairly finite cognitive resources, as well.

Throw in excitotoxicity, and it seems like if you were able to somehow override the filters in the brain and directly inject the sensory information it seems like it would fry your brain. How lasting the effects would be, one could probably only guess at. I would expect you'd suffer some pretty serious hallucinations, both auditory and visual, at minimum. Depending on the intensity of the input, I'd also expect that it would seriously alter the way that individual experienced the world.

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If we assume that getting more information means growing new synapses, then it should happen at a very high rate. Considering that the brain does not do it by its own (the closest might be the state you get in when you try to prepare for the final exam during the last night :) ), it might be rather painful process. Quite possibly, it's also energy-consuming, so the person receiving information in such way might feel quite devastated at the end.

On the other side, the space in the head is limited by the skull, so it might be even possible that too much new neurons and connections between them might increase the brain volume and hence the pressure from the skull becomes higher. Plus more blood will be needed to feed the growing system. More blood -> also more pressure from inside, more work for the heart to pump all that blood in.

Actually I wonder if we get to see the movie where the skull will crack as a result of information receiving process not being able to stop :-}

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As David suggested, the normal function for a human brain when presented with a great deal of information is to drown out everything but a single focular point - you're probably already doing this while reading this question, ignoring sounds, ambient light and other informationt that is irrelevant to your current task.

But this is not just true about ambient information - you've surely heard of information overload and the very real (and current) problems it presents. This is a separate and entirely different phenomena from the sensory overload that David is describing - wherein the brain attempts to block out most of it. Though the effect is much the same.

Say you're reading an internet article, that one I just linked above for example. Your brain will try to process the information as you read it, but if you have say, multiple different articles open on your browser at the same time, and are attempting to take in all of the information they have at once, the information you get will be incomplete and fractured - the same as if you are having a sensory overload, your brain will try to reduce the input to a manageable level.

But say you don't stop, or literally cannot stop, and are forced to take in all of that information in a continual stream with no break or rest. Over time, parts of the information would get through to you, fractured, disjointed and without context. They would be lodged in your mind, and you may not even be aware of their presence. It could very badly damage your ability to think for awhile, or possibly even for prolonged periods, as sensory input in excess can damage your ability to take in information from those senses. Assuming it is an option, your brain may shut down and try to make you sleep due to mental exhaustion, but if you can't sleep, you may start to experience symptoms of sleep deprivation, ranging from mild to extremely severe.

In short, if you are forced to take in more information (not just sensory information, but actual information) than your mind can process at once, you could suffer severe mental breakdowns over time.

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When driving long distances most people tend to forget most of the trip especially if they are not making a mental effort into remembering it. Sometime I am on autopilot when I drive and hours can pass with no recall of hundreds of miles driving. I would imagine even with your eyes stitched open with eye drops dripping in and on LSD the ability to turn off this part of the brain would be harder, but after a while the pictures would be no more than abstract pictures with no meaning and sound would be like Charlie Brown's parents talking.

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While the accepted answer is correct, it can be expanded on.

Humans constanly receive tons of information, from the position and temperature of their body to stimuly to pain or roughness of things you touch. Much of this is filtered out by the brainstem for example, which will filter on what it thinks is relevant. If you start talking about lice or itches, the brain is going to let such impulses through more and people start to feel itchy. On the other hand pain has a lower importance than many other sensory inputs (strangely enough). This is why people rub on or near a painful area, as the sensory input from the rubbing reduced the amount of pain signals that reach the brain.

But the question isnt about filtering information but about something I personally have a lot of experience with: too much information presented to the brain in a short time. This is possible for "normal" humans in extreme situations like loved one's dying or having to run for your life. But if you have autism much of your information filtering systems arent functioning and sensory overload is everywhere. For people on the full spectrum just someone's face can send too much information and overload them, hence some never learn the intricacies of social interaction. Others can be overloaded by noises, multiple conversations, quickly shifting situations and other such things.

How you react to that is different from person to person, but aside for headaches physical pain is usually not one of them. Rule of thumb is that they dont really process new information so they'll have a hard time responding to conversations and situations or remembering something of that period. Often the brain will go on automatic and perform a simple task, such as doing the dishes or going to the bathroom to give the mind time. If you keep overloading the mind you can expect hostility, outbursts of anger and violence or even flight responses where the person will simply try to Block out any and all information by going away from the situation, often finding an empty room and if able asking to be alone. On the plus side it is possible that only some responses go offline, such as feeling anxiety when someone is hurt allowing that person to perform basic first aid without all the annoyances that fear and indecision bring in such a situation.

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protected by Community Oct 20 '14 at 9:38

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