Cognitive Overload – it sounds very daunting but actually isn’t. It’s a phenomenon all of us have experienced at one point in our lives and definitely more than once. We’ve experienced it on hectic work days, in a tough statistics lecture, in a crowd where there’s too much commotion – basically in situations when too much is happening at one time.
What is Cognitive Overload?
In layman’s terms, it’s when too much information is presented to an individual at one time and they have trouble understanding it. Various research has shown that the amount of information our brain can process in a given time is actually very limited – Marois & Ivanoff (2005) reviewed these limitations, too.
If we delve into a little bit of technicality, here is what happens: Our brain has attention resources which allow us to focus and pay attention to the task at hand. This process is handled by the Working Memory, which takes in information we see and hear, and retains it for seconds, and then files it in our memory for short-term or long-term periods. If the Working Memory’s work is interrupted by anxiety triggers, too many unrelated stimuli or simply too much information presented at one time, it becomes unable to store the information let alone remember it, and the attentional resources exhaust themselves in trying to get you to focus on the chief task – it could be maintaining a conversation over a coffee, or trying to understand integration by parts in a noisy library.
Types of Cognitive Loads:
- Extraneous Load:
Thus occurs with instruction takers when various demands are imposed on them – when information is cluttered and individuals are distracted by extra information or stimuli that take their focus away from the chief task at hand. For example, attempting a tough MCQ exam with similar choices, forcing you to think and process each option and choose the right answer – this sort of teaching methods causes students to feel extraneously loaded, and can misdirect them from the primary task.
- Intrinsic Load:
This cognitive load refers to level of difficulty of the instructions an individual is supposed to follow. The characteristics of the information presented taxes individual’s attentional resources, although schemas (the mental representation/conceptualization of the information in front of us, which we have internalized according to our subjectivity) can be broken down into sub-schemas, and then worked on to reduce the mental load and overwhelming nature of the task.
- Germane Load:
This form of cognitive load has been noted to facilitate problem solving and learning. It helps to process, construct and work on schemas, and because the presence of schemas gives us a benchmark to gauge new experiences on, it was noted that adding newer instructions can increase this load (Sweller et. al., 1998). So maybe an overload if information isn’t bad for certain topics and in certain situations.
- Extraneous Load:
Know Your Enemy – Understanding the Consequences of CL
It’s admirable how the human brain can process a shockingly large matrix of knowledge throughout its lifespan. And it’s even more interesting to see how human beings do not falter especially during phases when they feel burnouts or mental exhaustion.
Either way, our mental capacity is taxed in various ways because of cognitive overload. You’ll be surprised to know how many of these consequences are well known problems you have read about or heard your friends complain about.
Anxiety is a state of fearing the worst based on irrational and unrealistic beliefs and expectations. Cognitive overload and anxiety have a two-way relationship, which is not a joy ride at all.
Anxiety Causing Cognitive Overload:
When anxiety renders an individual fearful, it also manages to tax our consciousness and ability to process information, which have trickle down effects on attention, focus and productivity (Mathews et. al., 1997). Anxious thoughts direct your focus towards triggers or stimulus that feed anxiety, distracting you from the task at hand, and overloading your ability to input relevant information in your mind.
Cognitive Overload Causing Anxiety:
When a plethora of information and important facts are presented to an individual, the stress of processing and retaining the information can overwhelm the individual and render them unable to retrieve it from memory or interpret it currently. It can also be caused by a dichotomy between what we understand at the surface, and how we think we should have understood it (Wurman, 1990).
Decision Making and Problem Solving:
Decision making requires full focus and being able to appraise your resources and come to a constructive solution. Getting your brain to pay effortful attention to make deliberate processes requires absolute focus and be alert. An overload of information from all sources will overwhelm decision making abilities and problem solving processes – not only that, cognitive overload lessens resources which makes our ability to analyze difficult situations weak (Hinson et. al., 2002; Duffy and Smith, 2012). Individuals tend to ignore available information and are like to use decision heuristics and also be distracted by certain cognitive biases (Gilbert et. al, 1988; Swann et. al.,1990).
One of the biases that cognitive overload affects is attentional bias. Attentional bias is when an individual who is anxious or overwhelmed with too much information, will focus on stimulus that will make them feel threatened – when this occurs, an individual gets distracted from the problem at hand, and attentional resources require more time to come back to square one to restore focus.
Memory and Learning Problems:
Have you ever been overwhelmed in an important situation then realized after that you missed out on some vital details or forgot to mention something important?
Yes, cognitive overload can tax your ability to recall information that your mind has stored in its long term archives. You may also not remember something new that was taught to you or introduced to you, and you may not be able to apply yourself well when tested on it or asked to work with it. Being overwhelmed in times when you have to learn something novel is the worst thing you could do. An anxious individual will tax their hippocampal region which is the center of learning, memory and perception– which has obvious affects on later performances.
Affects on the Self:
Reiterating the fact that cognitive overload decreases mental resources, individuals show more impulsiveness in their behavior, decreased willingness to take risks, and show lesser self control (Shiv B, 1999; Ward A, 2000; Benjamin D, 2013). Individuals also show varied levels trust – an important social component that facilitates companionship and social living – where some have been observed to trust less, and some have been observed to impulsively trust more.
Interesting, right? Cognitive overload, therefore, seems to create instability in personality and social decisions as a whole.
Hacking the Process of CL!
This phenomenon will always be around, whether we subconsciously go through it or are aware of the whirring in our heads. However, there are various ways to interrupt the overloading process and proceed with a clear head.
Experts have suggested the inclusion of mnemonics to increase information retention, constant rehearsal to reiterate the information, and to chunk content into small pieces for easy categorization and memorization.
Starting slow and steady should also work. Researchers claim that individuals should first be introduced to basic level information and after that has been perfected and retained, then another level of difficulty can be introduced – schemas are already in place to help them understand the next step, and this constructive manner of learning yields great results.
Shut off All Noise:
Noise in this case could mean the sounds of your coworkers chatting around the cubicles, or the constant clicking of keys in the library or any other distracters that will divert your attention or trigger you to lose focus at the task you are performing.
This means to hone your will power and skills of focus. Of course, practice makes perfect. Finding a quieter environment to work in, or weeding through social or textual components to focus on the topic at hand can help you perform better.
Meditation has also shown to significantly boost attentional resources. The act of meditation facilitates mindful behaviors which mean you become in control of your attention and focus and are able to train yourself to compartmentalize your work.
Strengthen Your Working Memory:
Strengthening your working memory – which is where information enters your intelligence, and remains there for a long time – is important if you want to hack the process.
Cognitive aids are tools or materials that can help you unclutter your mind. Making a checklist, making mind-maps, or listing things mentally or by writing them down can help to take off the mental pressure. By having identified the resources you have and singling out the distracters, you will be able to arrange your focus better.
Constantly rehearsing newer material or recalling novel situations will help your WM rehearse them repeatedly – by doing this, the stronger the memory becomes, the more chances it has of being stored in the long term archive, and the easily you will be able to use it in times or pressure.
Primacy/Recency Effect To the rescue!
This effect became famous in explaining the phenomena of human ability to remember the beginning and end of a list better than the middle. To avoid being overloaded or overwhelmed, figure out constructive ways to tackle tough tasks in the beginning or at the end.
Many researchers advocate for individuals to synchronize different forms of information together – for example pairing a visual presentation with audio; it aids learning, and there are multiple ways to retain the information, for example, remembering the slideshow or recalling the voice that presented a certain slide.\
Clearly, it’s not enjoyable feeling overwhelmed or overworked – and it’s certainly not fun when you feel mental exhaustion limiting your ability to function.
Cognitive overload is a very normal way for the brain to stretch its memory space to accommodate all that you have fed it. But processing the huge chunks of different bits and pieces takes time, and usually, much of the information is lost in the rehearsal-to-retention processes.
Next time you have a hard time working through a daunting task list, remember to sit back, relax, and calm yourself so your mind can return to its optimum condition, with refreshed attentional resources to help you proceed!
Although, if you are overwhelmed, overworked, lack energy and symptomatic of anxiety, make an appointment with a therapist of your choice from this trusted directory of psychologists.