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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.

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1)

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”

Jeffrey Eugenides (1960 – )

We use both the brain and the mind to perceive the world around us and decide the best course of action. The brain is an organ and, in some respects, isn’t just in our heads. It’s spread throughout our entire body expressed in our central and peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is essentially our spinal cord and what we traditionally consider the brain. The peripheral nervous system spreads out to our fingers and toes as our afferent and efferent nerves.

The mind is a completely different story. The mind isn’t tangible but, in some ways, can be more real than our brains. The mind is our cognitive functions which interpret and interact with the world around us. We usually consider our consciousness and thoughts as originating from the mind and because of this we like to think of the mind as “in the brain” but really the mind is an abstract idea. Our minds shape our reality and are responsible for our creativity and imagination.

There are known connections between the brain and the mind, which are easily demonstrated in drug use. But what I’m most interested in learning is how the brain functions physically, learning how the mind functions metaphysically, and maximizing their innate behavior to bring out optimal results.

The Brain

The brain is made up of 100 billion of neurons, nerve cells, that all work together to run our entire body. Neurons communicate with each other by sending neurotransmitters, electrical and chemical signals, through the spaces in between each neuron, synapses. These connections of neurons and synapses creates neurological pathways in our brain. Different neurological pathways do different things and our brain has a unique pathway for every single thing we think and do. Neurological pathways are a bunch of neurons that communicate through electrical impulses. It’s useful to know that these pathways strengthen every time they are fired. This gives the brain a unique ability to change and adapt based on what it thinks it needs to survive, this is known as brain plasticity. The brain is constantly morphing and changing, which is exciting because it shows that it’s never too late to learn anything. Learning doesn’t stop when someone gets older or gets “set in their ways.” Learning only stops when we decide it stops. However, like all organs in the body, the brain is something that requires energy and maintenance to function effectively.

In order to understand how to take care of our brains and use them more effectively, it’s helpful to know a little anatomy. This is not an exhaustive nervous system anatomy section – just some general knowledge and the parts that I’ve found relevant to learning:

3 Major Parts of the Brain

Thanks hopkinsmedicine.org

Cerebrum

This is the part in charge of performing higher order functions like interpreting our senses, developing and deciphering speech, reasoning, emotional regulation, learning, and fine motor skills. This is the youngest part of our nervous system.

Cerebellum 

This part of the brain receives sensory information, coordinates voluntary muscle movements, maintains posture, and regulates balance. This evolved after the brainstem but before the cerebrum.

Brainstem

This is part connects the rest of the brain to the spinal cord. It’s in charge of many automatic functions. This includes but is not limited to respirations, heart rate, temperature, circadian rhythms, digestion, sneezing, and sweating. This is the oldest part of our nervous system.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

We’ve all heard the common saying – left brain people are more analytical and right brain people are creative. This never really sat well with me because I’ve always felt like I could be a left brain person and a right brain person. I’m logical and extremely analytical but I’m also creative and artistic, where did I fit into this whole left brain right brain debate? Turns out, I didn’t have to pick a side! Everyone uses both hemispheres of their brains all the time. They’re just used for different things.

In Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series, he outlines (in extensive detail) how human beings interpret the world and derive value structures from that information. In the eighth video of the 2017 series he presents this image and I believe it’s a much better representation of the functions of the left and right hemispheres.

Maps of Meaning – Jordan Peterson (2017)

We use the left hemisphere to operate in places that we understand, it’s the part of the brain that gives us our positive emotion when the world around us aligns with what we expect or want. In the context of learning, our left hemisphere is what we’re using what we already know the answers. When students feel like what they’re working on is easy and within their realm of understanding, then they’re primarily using their left hemisphere.

On the flip side, we use the right hemisphere to operate in unknown territory, it’s the part of the brain that tells us what to do when we don’t know what to do. When it comes to learning, our right hemisphere is what’s going crazy when we’re trying to learn something new. When students feel like what they’re working on is scary, confusing, or too challenging, then they’re primarily using their right hemisphere.

Each hemisphere has a separate consciousness and they don’t communicate with each other as much as we’d think. They are seperated and communicate through the corpus callosum. It’s almost like each hemisphere makes their own interpretation and we just kind of roll with it. We see this in people with prosopagnosia, the loss of the ability of recognize faces.

Take the Weirwood tree from Game of Thrones for example. There’s curves in the tree that indicate facial information but it’s still a tree. One half of the brain interprets the visual stimuli as a face while the other interprets the information as a tree. We use both of these perspectives to understand reality but someone with prosopagnosia would see only the tree.

Ned & Catelyn Stark discussing duty

I believe our two hemisphere brain is an amazing demonstration of intelligent design. It’s extremely useful to have our control center, so to speak, ran by two systems. If one side goes down, then the whole thing doesn’t have to shut down. We see this happen in people who have strokes. If someone experiences a CVA (cerebrovascular accident), a.k.a. a stroke, they may experience some brain damage but because we have two hemispheres, people usually lose function of only one side of their body, rather than their whole body.

The Lobes of the Brain

The Cerebrum can be further divided into four different sections referred to as lobes.

Frontal Lobe

This is what’s in charge of our personalities, behaviors, and emotions. The frontal lobe is responsible for planning, problem solving, and judging and is where the majority of our executive and higher level functioning takes place. Cognitive phenomena such as concentration and self awareness are functions of the frontal lobe which helps makes us smart and also helps us move towards our goals. The Broca’s area, which is in charge of speaking and writing, sits inside the frontal lobe as well as the motor strip for voluntary body movement.

The frontal lobe also contains the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain which is involved with planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. It’s basically the part of the brain that’s physically responsible for our will power and ability to regulate the more animalistic and impulsive parts of ourselves. Someone with a strong prefrontal cortex is more able to do what they tell themselves to do.

Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobe sits on the top part of our brains and is sort of the sensory processing center of the cerebrum. The parietal lobe is in charge of interpreting language as well as tactile, thermal, visual, auditory, and other sensory stimuli. It also manages spatial and visual perception.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobe is at the back of our head and is the primary visual processing center. It interprets visual stimuli in three different ways – color, light intensity, and movement.

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe is located on the sides of our heads right under our temples – the parts where our skull fuses together. This part of the brain is great for processing auditory stimuli, sequencing, organization, and memory. You can find the Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobes so It also plays a huge role in understanding language too.

Internal Structures

Hypothalamus

This part of the brain runs us like a tyrannical 2 year old. It controls our autonomic systems and is responsible for the 4 f’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornication. So it plays a role in determining our body temperature, blood pressure, emotions, and sleep. The hypothalamus knows how to motivate us. When it wants something, it makes sure that we only care about that thing. That’s why it’s so difficult for most people to concentrate when they’re hungry – it’s because all we care about is the food! The hypothalamus is like our master orienting system. Whatever the hypothalamus wants, it gets. We can kind of regulate it with the cerebral cortex, but only to an extent. This is fantastic to know because there are learning techniques that take advantage of the hypothalamus’ behavior.

Pituitary Gland

This part of the brain hides in near the base of the skull in a place called the sella turcica. It’s connected to the hypothalamus, so you know it’s got some power. It controls the other endocrine (communication from far away) glands in the other parts of the body through hormone secretion that regulates sexual development, physical growth, and stress response.

Pineal Gland

This little guy is behind the third ventricle and regulates the body’s internal clock. This part of the brain controls the balance between melatonin and serotonin. The pineal gland is crucial to sleep, which is crucial for learning.

Basal Ganglia

Also known as the basal nuclei. This part of the brain works with the cerebellum to coordinate voluntary motor movements. It’s also involved in procedural and habit learning, eye movements, cognition, and emotions. So this is the part of the brain that we develop when we learn how to type, tie our shoes, ride a bike, or play a musical instrument. The basal ganglia recieves the information from the cerebellum to encode different skills, this is what people are referring to when they are talking about muscle memory.

Hippocampus

This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for information consolidation and spatial memory which helps us with navigation. Since I’m most interested about learning, I want to focus on the information consolidation feature of the hippocampus. The hippocampus moves our memories from our short term (working memory) to our long term memory. If someone were to damage their hippocampus they would experience anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories. If we think about what learning is, it’s really what the hippocampus is doing. It’s turning information that we know right now into information that we can have access to forever.

Amygdala

This almond-shaped clump of neurons is responsible for processing our emotions. The amygdala is associated with our fear response and pleasure. This is the part of the brain that goes crazy when some of my students see math problems. Understanding our fear and pleasure tendencies is crucial for understanding learning. Fear helps us remember things better and our seemingly endless pursuit of pleasure is a fantastic motivator.

Working Memory vs. Long Term Memory

Working Memory – this memory we use throughout the day is also known as short-term memory. Working memory has a finite limit. Holding things in your working memory increase cognitive load and since cognitive load has a maximum so does working memory. Things stored in working memory are easily forgotten. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the working memory. It stores information for about one minute and its capacity is limited to about 7 items (plus or minus 2). This is why we’re able to dial a phone number someone just told us. You can see it in reading too! Our working memory memorizes the sentence we just read so that the next one can make sense.

Long Term Memory – this is memory that we use throughout our entire lives. Some items in our working memory are converted to long term memory in the hippocampus through various methods, the most common is sleep. Highly emotionally charged ideas, events, or memories have a fast pass ticket to our long term memory. We have virtually unlimited space and the items stored in long term memory are not easily forgotten.

The goal that we are most interested in, as far as learning is concerned, is moving as much information as possible to our long term memory and be able to retrieve it using as little cognitive load as possible.


Some basic knowledge of the brain can help tremendously when examining methods for learning and improving. Given that the brain is set up for survival in dangerous living conditions, we can develop techniques which take advantage of these mechanisms. If we don’t use something often then our minds tend to forget it because the brain thinks we don’t need that specific neural pathway to survive. Our brains have evolved for a very different environment than we have built for ourselves as modern people. If we use something often, then our brain will strengthen that pathway so it’s easier for us to use later. I talk about this in my other post Neural Pruning vs. Long-Term Potentiation. This is the basis of Active Recall and many of the other scientifically proven study techniques.

Studying the mind in tandem with the brain sets up a fantastic foundation to test out other learning techniques for yourself. The next post will focus more on the mind and how we can use that knowledge to maximize our learning.