Using a Thimble to Fill a Bathtub
There is only one thing worth being concerned about.
It use to be assumed that long-term memory was simply a warehouse for storing facts, events, and impressions, and that it played little to no part in cognitive processing, thinking, or problem-solving. But brain scientists have now discovered that it is the “seat of understanding.”
It’s not just for storing facts, but complex concepts, or “schemas.” By organizing scattered bits of information and associating them all in ways we don’t even completely understand, schemas give depth and richness to our thinking. “Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time,” says Australian psychologist John Sweller, who has, for three decades, studied how our minds process information and learn.
We saw yesterday that the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from our working memory to our long-term memory. It also depends on how we weave it into conceptual schemas. But this is quite the process. Remember, the working memory has a very limited capacity for processing info. It can hold just five to seven pieces, or “elements,” of information. That, according to a 1956 paper. Now, it is believed that we can only process two to four elements at a time! And those elements we are actually able to hold on to quickly vanish “unless we are able to refresh them by rehearsal.”
Enter our picture of filling a bathtub with a thimble. That is the challenge involved in transferring info from your working memory to your long-term memory. It can only happen at a certain rate. This isn’t a bad thing, it just is. Different mediums bring info at you at varying velocities and intensities. For instance, on the more mellow end, you have reading a book. When you 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. With the Internet however, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimbleful overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.
(Now I suppose we could read off the Net more slowly and with great concentration if we decided to, but it is not what this media promotes by its very “nature.”)
The info 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 info or to draw connections with the info already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new stuff into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow. Because our ability to maintain attention also depends on our working memory, we have to remember what it is we’re to be concentrating upon. A high cognitive load amplifies our distractedness we experience. When our brain is over-taxed, we find distractions more distracting. It gets harder and harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant. Tougher and tougher to simply pay attention to something.
Our brains are rewiring to adapt to our world and its current technology. We’re seeing more and more, but taking in less and less. We’re becoming what some refer to as “Pancake People,” covering a lot of area very thinly. This is from the cognitive overload which comes from many possible sources, but the two most important ones may very well be “extraneous problem-solving” and “divided attention.”
It’s interesting the theme though much of Scripture to be single-minded. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” I wonder if this is further application for us today. Perhaps it goes deeper and to more places than just the division of trying to serve two masters–God and money. God designed and created our brains, knowing how they function best. Knowing they are designed for single-mindedness to work optimally. He knew, before the Internet and iPhones, that divided attention hurts us in many ways.
Try focusing on just one thing at a time and see what it’s like. Use your little thimble with great contentment. Take five hours to fill that bathtub with the satisfaction of knowing it will be time very well spent, for it will embed goodness into that limitless process of renewal that is your long-term memory.
Energy flows, and stays, where attention goes.
In the Name of Jesus,
Soli Deo Gloria