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Education Lifestyle Productivity

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.

Categories
Education

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 2)

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

John Milton (1608 – 1674)

The Mind

The mind what makes us feel alive and aware. It gives us the faculty of consciousness and the ability to think. The mind provides us with judgement, perception, language and memory. People all throughout time have dedicated their entire lives to trying to understand the mind but there is no shortage of things we don’t understand. Some of the people that studied the mind in depth include but are not limited to: Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Peterson, and many, many more. The mind is a strange place that we know very little about, but we can use what little we do know to our advantage. For some, the mind is the enemy. Perhaps it’s the most formidable enemy we’ll ever meet, but learning a few things about our minds can turn it into our most valuable ally.

I’ll do a brief run through a few of the topics that are integral to understanding the mind. Each of these topics is extremely dense and you can spend your entire life learning about just one aspect, but knowing just a little bit can make a dramatic difference in our lifestyle.

Mental Faculties

Thought

Wikipedia puts it best when it comes to summarizing what thinking is – “Thinking is sometimes described as a “higher” cognitive function and the analysis of thinking processes is a part of cognitive psychology. It is also deeply connected with our capacity to make and use tools; to understand cause and effect; to recognize patterns of significance; to comprehend and disclose unique contexts of experience or activity; and to respond to the world in a meaningful way.”

There are many theories to how the mind works. One of my favorites are diffuse thinking vs. focused thinking:

Focused thinking is what we traditionally think of when we hear the word thinking. It’s effortful, deliberate, and concentrated. It’s what we use when we’re consciously trying to solve a problem. Focused thinking eliminates distractions and gets the job done through sheer will power. This type of thinking is made possible through the contributions made by the prefrontal cortex. Focused thinking is optimal when you have high energy and the solution to the problem is right outside your zone of proximal development.

On the other hand, diffuse thinking is less straightforward. Diffuse thinking is the kind of thinking that’s running in the background making connections without you consciously noticing. Diffuse thinking occurs when we’re doing mundane tasks or whenever our brain has the ability to “wonder off.” Unlike focused thinking, diffuse thinking occurs in all parts of the brain. The freedom the brian has to make random connections allows for more creative solutions to come about. Diffuse thinking is optimal for when you are presented with a problem that may need a creative solution that you can’t immediately see. Benjamin Franklin used to induce diffuse thinking with his special napping technique whenever he came across a problem that he didn’t know how to solve.

Daniel Kahneman wrote about another thinking dichotomy in his best selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In this book, he discusses the brain working in two gears but he calls them System 1 and System 2. It’s similar to focused thinking vs. diffuse thinking but with some nuances. The main idea is to use System 1 to get the easy things done, but to slow down and use System 2 when necessary. Many people tend to mix these up and make important decisions quickly resulting in many unnecessary problems. I recommend checking his book out!

Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
Memory

Memory refers to our ability to keep and retrieve information. The study of memory has been a meeting point of several different academic disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and biology. There are many different kinds of memory. I laid out working memory vs. long term memory in my last post, but there are a few others that are worth mentioning.

Long Term Memory

It’s an umbrella term and splits into two different kinds of long term memory – Declarative and Implicit Memory.

Declarative (Explicit) Memory is the conscious and intentional storage of facts, events, and concepts. This is the memory that’s consolidated during stage 3 of the sleep cycle. Declarative memory can also split into two types:

Episodic memory refers to our autobiographical memory of specific events. It’s basically our collection of how we remember our life events.

Semantic memory refers to our memory of words, concepts, numbers, or other general worldly knowledge that we may need to survive. This type of memory is dependent on culture and experience.

Implicit Memory is the unconscious and unintentional learning that affects our thoughts and behaviors. Implicit memory is the reason why priming is a popular marketing method advertisers use to sell their products.

Procedural Memory is the best example of implicit memory at work. Procedural memory is responsible for knowing how to do things and it’s consolidated during the REM stage in the sleep cycle. This part of our memory picks up on the motor skills necessary to make every day life easier. This is how we learn how to talk, walk, ride a bike, play an instrument, etc.

Memory Tree (2019)

Retrieval

Part of what we consider to be our memory is our ability to access the information stored in our brains. The two main methods of retrieval are recall and recognition.

Recall

Recall refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory with little or no cues.

Recognition

Recognition refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory because of specific cues.

Imagination

“Scientists must have a vivid intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by an artistically creative imagination.”

Max Planck (1858 – 1947)

Scientists aren’t the only people who must have imagination, it’s necessary for everyone.

The imagination has been described as a subjective process that the mind uses to perceives the world and the activity of creating new situations, concepts, images, or any other qualia. Even when setting aside the make-believe games that children need to play, people use their imagination all the time. Whenever we think of possible future scenarios, see things from other people’s perspectives, or get lost in a daydream we are using our imagination. Imagination is crucial for problem solving, especially under restricted conditions, so there are many practical reasons to develop our imagination. I say imagination is the fuel for creativity, and our creativity is what separates us from animals. We should lean into our imaginative thoughts. Everything we have around us was first imagined in someone’s mind. Everything.

Developing our imagination is key to solving all of our world’s biggest problems. Climate change will be solved through imagination. The social and political conflicts around the world will end through new solutions that have not been implemented (or maybe even thought of) yet. Imagination solves problems. Imagination creates life.

Assimilation & Accommodation

Assimilation, according to Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, is using an existing schemata to make sense of a new situation. It’s the first step in learning something new! Whenever we encounter something new, we first try to relate the novel stimuli to something we already know in hopes of understanding it well enough to deal with it. For example, whenever I’m teaching my students how to solve algebraic inequalities, I show them how it’s similar to solving regular algebraic equations.

Accommodation is what we use when we don’t have the necessary schemas to perceive the new information. If the new information still doesn’t make sense even after applying our pre-existing schemas, then we modify existing schemas or create new ones to accommodate for that new information. This is how we learn new things. We build new knowledge on top of the knowledge we had before when we encounter new circumstances.

Identity

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

James Clear

Our identity is how we see ourselves and how we know who we are. Over the course of our lives we create this person based on our interpretations of our life events or our goals we set for ourselves. This is arguably the MOST powerful force that motivates us. Our habits and choices are based off what kind of person we see ourselves as.

What makes our identity such a powerful force?

Identity Defense is how we preserve who we think we are. This results in rejecting actions that don’t match with who we think we are and continuing actions that match who we think we are. We love being right and hate being wrong, and nothing is worse than being wrong about who we think we are. The kind of person that we see ourselves to be is the one thing that we like to think we know for sure. This is powerful in creating new habits and explains why starting new habits could be difficult. New habits may not be seen as something that would match up with our current view of ourselves so in order to be right about who we are, we reject the idea of doing those actions.

If we see ourselves as athletes, then we are more likely to do what athletes do.

If we see ourselves as musicians, then we are more likely to do what musicians do.

If we see ourselves as great students, then we are more likely to do what great students do.

If we see ourselves already as the people we desire to be, then taking on the new actions won’t feel so strange. Be the new person, everything else will follow.

The Self

Our identity is very much aligned with how we know ourselves. When we say I know myself, what does that actually mean? We have multiple ideas of our self and these ideas play into how we form our identity.

All of the multidimensional ways we describe ourselves is known as our Self-Concept. It transcends time and applies to our past, present, and future self. We have infinitely many ways in which we describe ourselves, but it’ll just cover a few of them here –

Let’s start with our Actual Self. This is who we are in reality; it includes all of our strengths, weaknesses, and how we know ourselves to act in the world. It’s tough to get an accurate read on who we are objectively, but with serious reflection and the right team of people around us we can find our actual limits and use that knowledge to our advantage.

The Ideal Self is the person who we strive to be. This is can be seen as analogous to Freud’s Superego. This is the version of ourselves that judges us when we make a mistake and praises us when we act in alignment with it. This is the self that most people identify with the most. It’s easy to mix up the actual self with the ideal self.

The Ought Self is the person who other people want us to be. Sometimes the person we think we should we is the person that other people think we should be. We should recognize when this is the case and act in accordance with our own commitment to our Ideal Self. I’m not saying we should never let other people influence how we act, I’m suggesting that it’s extremely beneficial to recognize the affect other people have on our sense of self and decide if it’s worth internalizing.

Our Self-Esteem is our evaluation of ourselves in relationship to our ideal self. The closer our actual self is to our ideal self, the higher our self-esteem. The further our actual self is to our ideal self, the lower our-self esteem. The best way to raise your self-esteem is to clearly define what your ideal self is and do actions that coincide with the your ideal self.

Self-esteem is not the same as Self-Efficacy, which is how capable we think we are at a given skill or situation.

Our self-efficacy is what drives the idea that we have to learn a certain way (like visual or auditory) or that we are only skilled in certain subjects (“I am a math person” or “I am an English person”). That isn’t true. Our self-efficacy can be improved and with those improvements comes a higher rate of learning in all domains of life, higher self confidence, and exciting opportunities!

We can improve our self-efficacy in three steps:

  1. Making & accomplishing small attainable goals
  2. Recognizing those small accomplishments as significant and the preferred method of progress, as opposed to working hard for one large accomplishment
  3. Slowly increasing difficulty over time

If we don’t take care of our self-efficacy, it’ll be difficult to try new things and eventually one could slide into the realm of Learned Helplessness. This is one of the lowest forms of diminished self-efficacy. It comes about from being in consistently hopeless scenarios. Sometimes there are things we can’t do, and if we find ourselves in those situations enough then we’ll learn that there isn’t anything we can do anywhere.

Learned helplessness is serious, but can be avoided. Recovering from learned helplessness requires a shift in identity, recognizing our cognitive biases (specifically the negative ones we hold about ourselves), setting them aside, and focusing on raising our self-efficacy.

One noteworthy mention is Carl Jung’s definition of The Self. I reference this in my other post The Power of Failure. Jung believed that the Self was developed through individuation, which is the integration of your personality. The Self is the representation of the unification of our conscious and unconscious. It’s my understanding that the primary means of individuation is through circumambulation, which is also mentioned in The Power of Failure.

There are many ways to define ourselves, so no one way is objectively true. But one thing is certain, understanding how we see ourselves is crucial to improving and getting out of our own way.

Dramaturgy (Front Stage Self vs. Back Stage Self)

Front Stage Self

This is the self which we present to other people. The self we put out to fit the social norms.

Back Stage Self

This is the self that we are when we are not around other people. This self is the one that really runs the show. Most of the actions that define our lives and self-concept are driven by the back stage self.

Collapsing these two as much as possible will make success in any domain easier. We don’t have to completely merge them together, but an honest life keeps us confident and directly affects our self esteem and efficacy. Training the back stage self to be well polished and pristine like our front stage self will allow us to accomplish what we need to accomplish to reach our goals.

Cognitive Load

I like to think of cognitive load as our brain’s biological RAM or our mental gas tank. In the morning (if we’re well rested) we start off with our full processing capacity, but as the day goes on every little task and decision chips away at our cognitive load until we go to sleep. Not all activities require the same amount of cognitive processing. Multitasking or activities that require intense concentration use up our cognitive load the most. This is why I do the most difficult tasks first – just getting my lazy ass to do it is going to take tons of cognitive load, so to speak. I won’t have the physiological brain power necessary to do the difficult tasks well if I save them for the end of the day.

Maximize bandwidth by reducing cognitive load.

Scientifically Proven Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load

  • Apply Occam’s razor to everything
  • Minimize the number of decisions you make per day
  • Remove needless words
  • Do the most difficult tasks first
  • Collaborate
  • Use cognitive aids (e.g. checklists, calendars, notifications)

Top-down Processing vs. Bottom-up Processing

Examine the following sentence – Rocky loves to rock on his rcoking chair to rock music.

Noticing that the c and the o in rocking chair are reversed is a form of bottom-up processing, seeing each letter and concluding that it is supposed to say rocking. But knowing that rcoking and rocking are similar for all intents and purposes is a form of top-down processing because you have noticed that the word is rocking then noticing later that the letters are switched.

Top-down Processing

Our ability to perceive something and apply what we already know and expect to perceive details that match with our conclusions.

Bottom-up Processing

Our ability to perceive a collection of details as they come and conclude what something is as a result of those details.

How does it relate to studying?

When studying, we want to use bottom-up processing to fight against our top-down processing tendencies. It’s easy to review a topic and think we know all the small details because we are familiar with hearing the name of the chapter or section, but in reality, we need to practice our concepts from the small details up and practice working through everything to really make sure that we know our information.

To study through bottom-up processing, doing practice problems or answering free response questions will help identify any gaps in your knowledge when it comes to the concepts you are responsible for learning. This type of studying is also know as Active Recall.

How do both processes work for us and against us?

When studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of top-down processing. If we study simply by looking over our notes or reading quick sections over the chapter, we’ll be at a loss when the test comes and that will have a negative impact on our grades.

However, this doesn’t mean that top-down processing doesn’t have it’s uses. Sometimes top-down can be great for trying to learn something new. Applying top-down processing to a new concept can help you try to see the bigger picture then fill in the smaller details later. This is something I like to call Knowledge Frames. Building knowledge frames is perfect for frontloading, or previewing new information in advanced in order to focus on reviewing rather accommodation or assimilation. When I was in EMT school, I used knowledge frames to learn the blood flow through the heart in less than 10 minutes!

Bottom-up processing is great for reviewing content and can prevent us from deluding ourselves from thinking that we understand something when we actually don’t. I have had plenty of experience using bottom-up processing while studying and taking tests I was grossly underprepared for.

That being said, bottom-up processing isn’t so great for learning new material. Using bottom-up can create an illusion of new concepts seeming more difficult than they actually are. Purely memorizing individual facts or ideas about a new concept without trying to find how they all fit together will make any class 10x harder than it should be.

Both have their place and being aware of their existence can give us more firepower when dealing with a new class of information. Experiment with both and find your own methods that can maximize your results.


We interact with the world on many different levels. When a snake lunges towards us, we jump back before we consciously realize that the snake is attacking us. Our bodies are interpreting the world at one level and our minds interpret the world on another. Understanding our minds, is understanding part of how we interact with the world around us which will help us in anything we pursue. This is why I consider understanding our brain and mind important and treat it as a metaskill and I highly recommend diving into the fields of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and literature if you’re interested in doing so.

Despite this blog post and the much larger body of work other people much smarter than me have put together, there is no shortage of things we don’t understand about the mind.