Don’t Overcrowd Your Working Memory

As you prepare to pass the EPPP, one of the most important things is to stay focused.

In their book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley explain that there are certain built-in limits to the amount of stimuli our short-term memory is able to process at any one time. “Our minds have a limited ability to process information about multiple objects at any given time” they write.

Protecting your working-memory from overload can be a difficult job given the type of society we live in.

How many times have you gone to your computer to study, only to find yourself being distracted by things like Facebook, email and text messages?

The Real Problem With Distractions

The crucial thing to remember is that the real problem with online distractions is not that they take up time. Glancing at a text message or a Facebook comment can be a very brief exercise occupying no more than a few seconds.

Rather, the real problem is that by exposing our minds to this constant stream of stimuli we are using up valuable cognitive resources that put a drain on the short-term memory. Our short-term memory or “working memory” can only hold so much information at any one time, which is why it is important not to overload it. Unlike your long-term memory, which can store vast amounts of data, your working memory can only take so much at any one time.

Why Protecting Your Working Memory is Important

Why is it so important to protect your working or short-term memory? Because intelligence, understanding and long-term memory are all constructed out of content that was once in our short-term or working memory.  As Nicholas Carr explained,

“The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas. But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms the major bottleneck in our brain. Unlike long-term memory, which has vast capacity, working memory is able to hold only a very small amount of information.”

It is during times when it feels like the brain is at rest (times of quiet reflection and sleep) when we build up conceptual schemas based on the information our memory has retained. As such, our memories play a crucial role in making us who we are since the depth of our intelligence (and therefore our personality) hinges on the mind’s ability to consolidate our memories into schemas, to let everything we remember foment and chrystalize into wisdom. For there can be no knowledge without memory, and there can be no wisdom without knowledge. But this will not happen automatically if we have left the working memory in a condition of overload. Realizing the limitations of our working memory should challenge us to take stock of how we treat our brain, and it should encourage us not to let our working-memory get overloaded.

Stay Offline During Lectures

Because of the limits of working memory, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t surf the web or check your text messages while listening to a lecture, even if your search is on the same topic as the lecture. (This applies whether the lecture is on person or online.)

In 2007, the journal Media Psychology did a study involving over a hundred volunteers. One set of subjects were given an oral presentation which included presenting text pages on the computer. Another subject were given the same oral presentation but with streaming of supplementary visual material that the subjects could stop and start as they wished. Afterwards both sets of people were given a test about the content of the presentation. Those who had been given text-only answered 7.04 questions correctly, while the other group only answered 5.98 correctly. Another study, published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education, yielded similar results.

What About Music?

Being attentive not to overcrowd your working memory does not mean that you shouldn’t listen to music while studying. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 1995 that the surgeon’s performed better when operating to specially selected music. A lot obviously depends on the type of music you’re listening to. If the music is cognitively demanding, then it is likely to have a deleterious effect on your study.

Create a Distraction-Free Environment

Finally, be attentive to your environment. Are you working in an environment that is filled with distractions? This includes the distraction of digital devices. The scholarly literature from the last decade shows that having a functional cell phone present when one is trying to concentrate (including reading) creates a burden on the short-term memory even if one does not actually use the device. This is because the very thought “I wonder if someone is trying to reach me” or “I’ll just quickly check my messages at the end of this chapter” competes in the working memory (located in the front of the brain) with the cognitive resources needed for effective concentration.  The working memory becomes overloaded, not simply by those things we are thinking about directly, but by the many concerns, conversations and potential conversations that hoover just beneath consciousness. This may not feel like overload only because the brain adjusts by squeezing out other things, including the type of quiet reflection that is so important for building up schemas and true understanding. Turn your cell phone off and stay focused on your EPPP studies.

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