Have you ever had so many windows open on your computer at once that it caused the computer to freeze? It happens on my computer all the time.
The solution, of course, is to close things down. To preserve your computer’s processing power, you sometimes need to prioritize the programs that are the most important to have running.
The human brain is like that as well. Psychologists sometimes use the term “cognitive load” to describe the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory at any one time. If a person has too high of a cognitive load—that is, if the person is multitasking or if their short-term memory is focused on too many things at once—then the brain will work below peak capacity and may even freeze up.
Mental Overload and The Temptation to Multitask
Too much cognitive load plagues many student today. A lot of people in the younger generation pride themselves on their ability to multitask—to transition back and forth between studying and receiving text messages or alerts on social media. Indeed, it is now routine for those who are studying online to have webmail or an email reader opened at the same time, and to briefly interrupt their studies to glance over at incoming messages.
However “skilled” you may be at this type of multitasking, it puts a strain on your cognitive resources. Even if you don’t reach a point where you brain actually freezes up, this type of mental overload will affect your working memory (the part of the brain that all new information must pass through before making it into the long-term memory).
Protect Your Working Memory
In an article for the elearning industry, Matthew Guyan explained the impact that cognitive load has on both working memory and long-term memory:
“In our brains, we have two types of memory. One is our working memory, which we use to process new information. The capacity of our working memory is quite limited so it can only handle so much before it becomes overloaded. The second is our long-term memory, which is where we store information from our working memory and where we retrieve that information from later. Within our long-term memory, information is organized into schemas, which are organizational frameworks of storage (like filing cabinets). Not exceeding working memory capacity will result in greater transfer of information into long-term memory.
What does this have to do with you and your EPPP test preparation? For one thing, it should be a no-brainer that you’re engaged in preparing for your EPPP you should turn off your phone so you can’t receive distracting messages in the middle of studying. It also means that if you are studying for the EPPP online (such as with the TSM platform), you should close down everything in your computer that is not relevant to your studies (email, social media, etc).
What Distractions Do To Your Brain
Again, think of your brain like a computer with limited R.A.M. Conceptualizing your brain in this way will help to avoid one of the most pervasive myths about distractions and multitasking. It is routinely assumed that the main problems with various digital distractions are that they use up too much time that could be spent studying. However, the reality is that glancing at an incoming text message or email while you are studying may absorb less than a second of time. Sending off a quick response may take 10 seconds, quicker than the amount of time it takes to go to the kitchen to get a drink of water. We have pointed out before, the real problem with digital distractions is that by exposing our minds to this stream of stimuli we are using up valuable cognitive resources that put a drain on the short-term memory.
Briefly interacting with incoming messages, glancing at social media alerts and deciding whether or not to respond, or having to choose whether it give a 3 second reply to a text message, involves the redirection of mental resources from reading to making judgments, thus imperceptibly taxing the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex.
Remember that the “working memory” can only stretch itself so far at any one time. If we exceed our capacity, then we make it less likely that the content in our short-term memory (what you are studying today) will make it into your long-term memory (what you can recall in the future).
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr uses the analogy of a thimble and a bathtub to describe the challenge involved in converting short-term memories into long-term memories within the context of reading:
“Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas….
The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our ‘cognitive load.’ When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information—when the water overflows the thimble—we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow.”