Why the “old” brain struggles with big data

In the Information Age, is there really such a thing as too much information?

Sharing student data with professors is a hot topic on campuses these days. Aiming to help their scholars graduate on time, more than 150 US colleges are using data to determine which students are “likely to fail” certain courses, and alerting their teachers.1

Aimed at improving student outcomes—a laudable goal—this use of big data, called “predictive analytics,” is under fire, for conflicting reasons. Professors, it’s argued, might treat flagged students differently—but how else would they help them succeed? Some worry that instructors would pay so much attention to “likely to fail” students that they’d neglect the rest, while others fear they’ll do the opposite, forming biases against the very scholars who most need help.

Change is never easy

From social media to search-engine ads to hiring to transportation, big data is spreading like a great umbrella over virtually every aspect of our lives. Any change so dramatic is bound to stimulate debate and even a measure of fear, and the fast-growing availability of personal data is no exception. What was once considered private—our whereabouts at any given moment, our shopping preferences, our reading and viewing habits, our grades—now goes into that vast repository known as the “cloud,” to be sifted and sorted and used and shared.

At its best, big data serves as a tool that can enhance our lives in innumerable ways—in ways we haven’t even yet considered. So why do so many oppose it?

The fears around big data stem from purely hypothetical situations, at least for now, when it’s still such a new phenomenon. People’s gut reactions tell them that information about them or their loved ones, collected and disseminated, is bound to be used for evil rather than good. But how valid are their concerns?

“Old” brain vs. new thinking

Author and professor Jim Davies has an interesting theory about reality and intuition. The human brain, he says, comprises two realms: the “old brain,” in the back, which produces impulses and instincts that help us to survive—this is where intuition originates—and the “new brain,” in the front of the head, which we use to control those impulses.

The problem is that, sometimes, the two can conflict. We might crave fast food, for instance, even while knowing it’s bad for us. Or we might feel fear when standing on top of the Empire State Building even though we know we’re not going to fall.

Could it be that fears around big data emanate from our “old” brains? What exactly are we really afraid of? And, just as the old brain interprets images in art and film as real—it’s why we feel afraid when watching horror movies—perhaps it conflates our hypothetical big-data fears with reality.

Making data work for us

Using our rational minds, though, we can see many positive uses of big data that have the potential to improve all our lives. Wouldn’t we rather see advertisements for products and services relevant to us than for things we don’t care about? Surely we want to know when a serious illness or disease is prevalent in our own community. And if our kids are struggling to succeed in school at any age, we certainly want them to receive all the help their teachers and administrators can provide.

Data is, after all, a tool with enormous possibilities to change our lives for the better. Rather than spend our energy swimming against the data tide—awash in hypothetical fears that big data might be used against us—why not dream, instead, of the myriad ways we can make it work for us?