Cognitive Load

You're sprawled on the couch in your living room, watching a new episode of Justified on the tube, when you think of something you need to do in the kitchen. You get up, take ten quick steps across the carpet, and then, just as you reach the kitchen door — poof! — you realize you've already forgotten what it was you got up to do. You stand befuddled for a moment, then shrug your shoulders and head back to the couch.

Such memory lapses happen so often that we don't pay them much heed. We write them off as "absentmindedness" or, if we're getting older, "senior moments." But the incidents reveal a fundamental limitation of our minds: the tiny capacity of our working memory. Working memory is what brain scientists call the short-term store of information where we hold the contents of our consciousness at any given moment — all the impressions and thoughts that flow into our mind as we go through a day. In the 1950s, Princeton psychologist George Miller famously argued that our brains can hold only about seven pieces of information simultaneously. Even that figure may be too high. Some brain researchers now believe that working memory has a maximum capacity of just three or four elements.

The amount of information entering our consciousness at any instant is referred to as our cognitive load. When our cognitive load exceeds the capacity of our working memory, our intellectual abilities take a hit. Information zips into and out of our mind so quickly that we never gain a good mental grip on it. (Which is why you can't remember what you went to the kitchen to do.) The information vanishes before we've had an opportunity to transfer it into our long-term memory and weave it into knowledge. We remember less, and our ability to think critically and conceptually weakens. An overloaded working memory also tends to increase our distractedness. After all, as the neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg has pointed out, "we have to remember what it is we are to concentrate on." Lose your hold on that, and you'll find "distractions more distracting."

Developmental psychologists and educational researchers have long used the concept of cognitive load in designing and evaluating pedagogical techniques. When you give a student too much information too quickly, they know, comprehension degrades and learning suffers. But now that all of us — thanks to the incredible speed and volume of modern digital communication networks and gadgets — are inundated with more bits and pieces of information than ever before, everyone would benefit from having an understanding of cognitive load and how it influences memory and thinking. The more aware we are of how small and fragile our working memory is, the more we'll be able to monitor and manage our cognitive load. We'll become more adept at controlling the flow of the information coming at us.

There are times when you want to be awash in messages and other info-bits. The resulting sense of connectedness and stimulation can be exciting and pleasurable. But it's important to remember that, when it comes to the way your brain works, information overload is not just a metaphor; it's a physical state. When you're engaged in a particularly important or complicated intellectual task, or when you simply want to savor an experience or a conversation, it's best to turn the information faucet down to a trickle.