Moderating abundance

Every year, poses a question to a bunch of folks and then publishes the answers. This year’s question is (in so many words): What scientific concept would have big practical benefits if it became more broadly known? Here’s my answer:

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.

9 thoughts on “Moderating abundance

  1. umesh.bawa19

    Short term memory, looks like a newly invented modern disease..

    But its not a disease, as it poses mortal inability to bear pampering act of cognitive work load…

    Most probably, there needs to be a sound mind cohert all obnoxious reflections.. It might be well said that, we lack conciousness and loose control in case of handling cognitive workload, but i think u need revision in this case….

    Every human being can remember anything more than you have suggested and upto unlimited time, or until he ceases breathing..

    Also, human being can also read and learn in loudy noise, due respect to 10,000 decabites..

    This is just coping subconconcious mind..

  2. Ed Carlevale

    I don’t know if you are deliberately trying to discourage comments — if that’s a choice, then I respect it because your work just keeps getting more brilliant. And I don’t know if sparse comments equals sparse readers. But all of your work can be described as warnings of what lies ahead for us, and short-circuiting the discussion as you do seems to skew the process somehow. You concentrate on what the Internet is doing to us, but the other two writers whom I associate with this self-conscious attempt to understand the experiment we’re living through – Andrew Sullivan and Jay Rosen – are powerfully engaged with their audiences – and I think that sense of engagement gives us a sense that the outcome is up in the air, while your posts give the sense that the conclusion is foregone.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    @Ed Carlevale – I would say those two are working different angles, which then imply a different relationship with their audience. Pseudo-popularism is different from playing the technology-is-dehumanizing trope to humanities types.

    (sigh, disclaimer, that’s half a sentence meant to quickly summarize a very complex social dynamic, it is of course not a complete nuanced description).

  4. Ed Carlevale

    “A different relationship with their audience” — agreed. But “pseudo popularism” in regard to Sullivan and Rosen is obviously way off, both as a judgment and observation. I group Sullivan, Rosen and Nicholas Carr because, different as their subjects are, they’re a couple steps ahead of the tsunami overtaking everyone else. Yesterday I just wanted to post a quick acknowledgement of a really great post — but this old school method of posting comments made me feel as if I were sending a letter to Santa Claus at the New Yorker. Comments are an essential part of this revolution, they’re really the only thing that is revolutionary, which is why they’re so difficult to get right. In The Shallows, I felt Nicholas Carr was drifting too readily into Lewis Mumford territory, and the idea that any of this is about pseudo or tropes seems more of the same. Something is at stake, and it isn’t a meta something. It’s quite real, and to my mind the only thing that will make a difference is conversation, not a diary entry.

  5. Seth Finkelstein

    Actually, all three are following the “tsunami”, and … well, I’d better not make the joke I was about to, as they all out-power me by orders of magnitude. Anyway, “Comments are an essential part of this revolution”? Sez you. That is, Nick Carr would do fine if he didn’t have comments, just like many other high-ranking pundits. One could almost do a Groucho Marx style analysis that anyone who can only be heard by making a comment on a blog, doesn’t matter. If you think anyone needs comments, besides the subset of A-listers who make their living using such audiences somehow, you’ve been fooled by that pseudo-popularism.

    “Conversation” is highly overrated. The illusion of conversation even more so.


    Like Ed Carlevale, I’m also interested in the conversation more than merely being broadcast to, as it were. In that respect, I’m an active member of “the audience that talks back,” as I’ve heard it called. However, any conversation quickly reaches diminished returns when the number (and inanity) of responses reaches the level of a crowd murmur, which is often the case with popular blogs and media. Rough Type is one of the few blogs where I offer an occasional comment (if I have something worthwhile to say) knowing that the blogger will most likely not respond.

    As to cognitive load, I’ve also heard it called (metaphorically) the bandwidth of consciousness, which is a notoriously small portion of the brain’s processing power.

  7. Stephen Bullington

    Isn’t this more-or-less the same territory Alvin Toffler covered in his 1970 book, “Future Shock”? Future Shock was all about cognitive overload and life moving too fast. And that was BEFORE the Internet ;->.

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