My brain feels a little bit like this at the moment, there’s a lot of stuff going on. I’m sure I’m not the only one. In fact, I know I’m not the only one because there’s a whole theory about it. Cognitive load theory.
I tried to find a good video that describes this, but ironically I feel like they all tried to cover too much information. So I’m going with a brief, grossly oversimplified written summary instead. The theory was put forward by a guy named John Sweller in 1988, and it describes the way our brains process and store information. The foundation of it is that we have a long term memory and a working memory.
Long term memory is where we store large amounts of information for a long time. It’s the warehouse of information that we draw upon when we need it, both consciously and subconsciously. Working memory is where we store small amounts of information on a very short term basis. It’s what we’re conscious of at any given time. We take information in, process it in our working memory, use it then forget it or store it in our long term memory as schemas.
Our ability to process new information and learn depends on our working memory, but we only have a limited amount of it available at any given time. The theory calls this “limited cognitive-processing capacity”. There are two ways that you can get better bang for your buck out of your working memory - make the input simpler to process or develop more automated schemas that can be drawn upon with little effort.
The development of automated schemas is kind of like the practice makes perfect thing. As we get more skilled at something through repeat exposure we gain more schemas and they become more complex. Eventually it may come to a point where they’re so well developed that they are almost automatic and we can draw on them without conscious effort. It’s this that differentiates a master from a novice (and probably what underpins the beginner’s gap ).
Controlling what information you’re exposed to isn’t always in our control. Especially these days where it’s information overload. This brings a few things to mind, but as I said, my brain feels like it’s in meltdown at the moment so I’m not going to try and tackle them all at once. I’m going to do my working memory a favour and focus on one thing only - shaping the environment to try and control information exposure.
There are a few things I do when I’m feeling like my brain is on fire. One of the things I’ve found most useful is limiting my exposure to social media and other high volume inputs. Sure, there might be some gold nuggets that make it feel worth it, but overall I find it over-stimulating and adds to my feeling of mental overwhelm. Of course, it’s easier said than done, especially during a lockdown where there isn’t much connection to the outside world. So I’ve deleted the apps from my phone and it seems to work well. The other I do is turn off all but the most essential notifications. Avoid information getting put in front of me uninvited and demanding my attention when I’m doing something else.
There’s are so many angles to explore on this topic, but I’m going to leave it there for now. Because frankly, not all of your cognitive capacity has to be spent on things that have meaning. You need to leave space for fun and frivolous stuff too.
If you’ve got a method for managing mental overload that you find effective, please share it with me by replying below, I’d love to hear about it