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Cognitive Load

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

Commonly thought of as the effort required for our brains to do a specific task. Cognitive Load is a fun concept to use as we navigate the best ways to accomplish our daily tasks. Some people like to think of cognitive load as mental gasoline for the “brain engine.”

Australian Psychologist, John Sweller came up with the Cognitive Load Theory which suggests that our working memory can only hold so much information at once and in order to maximize learning, we must learn in a way that does not overwhelm the working memory. The amount of information held in the working memory can be thought of as our cognitive load. If the working memory is overencumbered, then we can’t process information effectively or execute actions properly. This effect is most obvious when we skip sleeping for about two days. The tiredness we feel comes from the working memory doing more than it’s used to. Typically, the more difficult the task, the more cognitive load is required to complete it, but there are nuances.

Types of Cognitive Load

Extraneous Load – this makes up the majority of our cognitive load. We can think of this as the unnecessary load when we are learning something new. Extraneous loads don’t contribute to learning and usually bog us down when we are exposed to them. Different stimuli have different levels of extraneous load. Examples of large forms extraneous load include but are not limited to poor instruction, task/attention switching, and redundancy. Some of the smaller forms are processing changes of motion or light in the room we’re in, or filtering out noise unrelated to the task at hand. Noticing these small things takes such little processing that we barely even notice, but it adds up and it’s possible to process so much sensory information that other tasks can’t be completed.

Intrinsic Load – this can be thought of as the difficulty built right into the subject. The more difficult the subject, the higher the intrinsic load put on our brains. Intrinsic load can be managed through high quality instructors, sophisticated study habits, and deliberate practice. It’s important to keep in mind that some things are so complicated that our brains cannot handle the intrinsic load of the complicated subject and process new information simultaneously. This was me when I was trying to learn quantum physics in college…it was really complicated and I had a hard time learning new information.

Germane Load – this is my favorite type of cognitive load. While it does take some of our mental resource throughout the day, germane load is for transferring the information in our working memory over to our Long-term Memory (LTM). So germane load is the processing devoted to processing information, constructing, and automating schemas. Not all memory consolidation has to occur when we sleep, we can move things to our LTM while we are conscious, it takes a little bit of energy and this is known as the germane load.

I like to think of cognitive load in relation to our “Mental Bandwidth” – it effects our processing power. We can only process so many things at once so it’s helpful to be mindful of our environment and the demands that we put on our brains.

Cognitive Load Threshold vs. Time of Day

The maximum amount of cognitive load we tolerate at a given moment is considered the Cognitive Load Threshold (CLT) and this threshold slowly diminishes throughout the day, or at least until we sleep. Our CLT is highest in the morning and lowest at the end of the day. I don’t recommend this, but if you don’t believe me try saving all of your difficult tasks for the end of the day and pay attention to how difficult it is to complete them. Do all the difficult things in the morning and save the “mindless” simple stuff for later in the day.

The reason for the gradual decline throughout the day is because our minds hold our cognitive load in our working memory is because our working memory has a finite capacity. In order to reset our CLT, we would have to clear out our working memory and that typically happens through sleep.

*Note – this curve is a representation of typical behavior of our cognitive load and everyone’s CLT curve may vary. Everyone’s mind is a little different, so I recommend taking time to figure out which times of day you have the highest and lowest CLT.

Competence and Performance vs. Cognitive Load

Our performance and perceived competence is also a function of our cognitive load. As we acquire cognitive load we perform better, but if we acquire too much cognitive load it can be detrimental to our desired outcomes. This curve mimics the Yerkes-Dodson Curve, a relationship between desired performance and mental arousal.

9 Methods to Reduce Cognitive Load

  1. Maximize the signal to noise ratio – optimizing our environment to facilitate the task at hand. Keep all the extra stuff away from what we are trying to do. The intrinsic load will usually be high for learning something new, so we want to keep the extraneous load to a minimum so we have as much processing power as possible dedicated to germane load. Signal is what we want. Noise is everything else. Keep our processing mechanisms focused on the signals.
  2. Minimize the decisions you have to make in a day – each choice chips away at our CLT. By keeping that number low, we have more brain power dedicated to other things. I minimize some of my decisions by meal prepping, having pre-set outfits, running routines, and having a calendar. Systems are clutch for minimizing cognitive load. Choices are inevitable, but most of the decisions we make throughout the day are unnecessary.
  3. Execute the most difficult tasks first – mentioned a couple times before. I believe that this is what Mark Twain really meant in the quote I included at the beginning. We have the most cognitive load at the beginning of the day and the most difficult tasks require the most cognitive load. Therefore, if we wanted to complete difficult tasks, it would be in our best interests to do them first thing in the morning. For me, blogging is a high cognitive load activity, so I usually get my best writing done in the morning. If I wait until the evening or the afternoon, it’s harder for me to write and my writing quality diminishes. Back when music production required high cognitive load for me, I used to produce first thing in the morning. Now that I’m more comfortable with production, I can do it at night and still produce high quality music. The production isn’t as high a quality as it would be if I worked on it with a clearer head, but it requires significantly less cognitive load to get a song done.
  4. Limit redundancy – learning repetitive stuff is boring and a waste of our valuable cognitive resource. It’s best to limit exposure to novel concepts and ideas, this is not to say that repetition doesn’t have its place. Repetitions are extremely crucial to studying efficiently, but everything we’re processing adds to the cognitive load even if we’ve “already see it before.”
  5. Collaborating – working with other people takes the load off of us, as long as we can work effectively with the people we are collaborating with. Putting multiple brains to the task multiplies our cognitive load threshold as well as gives us an opportunity to share the load with everyone else. Win-win situation.
  6. Provide cognitive aids – I love to use checklists, calendars, reference guides, and habits as forms of cognitive aids. Pretty much anything that we can use to remember something for us or anything that makes making decisions easier can be considered a cognitive aid. I try to keep my working memory as load free as possible and externalizing my appointments, grocery lists, small tasks, and specific facts is a great way of doing that. I have a few posts on scheduling. My calendar is my favorite cognitive aid and it can take years to get good at it.
  7. Minimize context switches – when our brain switches from one activity to the next, it takes on a little cognitive load. This switching can be with the smallest of activities. Let’s say I’m writing a blog post and I get a notification that someone texted me. I stop writing the blog post and start texting my friend. There is a context switch from writing the blog post to texting my friend and that adds to the cognitive load, but there is another context switch in this scenario, and it was when I switched my attention from writing the blog post to looking at the notification. Just the simple act of switching my attention elsewhere is a context switch for my mind. Focus on one thing at a time, and keep notifications off! Minimize context switching!
  8. Utilize the Modality Effect – the modality effect suggests that people learn best by taking in information through multiple modes. This means we learn better when we take in information auditorily and visually rather than just auditorily or just visually. While there is a higher extraneous load, the germane load is much less than what it would be when we optimize the modality effect.

Our minds can only do so much in a day. As tough as people are, we are biological creatures and our bodies have limits. Understanding our limits and what we can do to minimize our loads will help us be more efficient in the long run. Through incorporating these ideas into our learning techniques and practice, our minds will be able to perform at a higher level with less strain. Cognitive Load hygiene is crucial to maintaining a healthy mind and developing peace of mind. Being mindful of our cognitive load will help us live better and accomplish more over the long term.

5 replies on “Cognitive Load”

[…] Making the kinds of choices to propel our lives forward is a difficult thing to do and that’s where habits come into play. Building habits will help us stay on the upswing even when we don’t “feel like it.” Typically, making upswing choices takes a lot of willpower and if we are presented with a crossroads and have low willpower, then chances are we’ll make a choice that brings up on the downswing. Habits are our brain’s way of automating familiar and old tasks so it can focus on other areas and mastering new tasks. Put more simply, habits save cognitive load. […]