Empty your busy brain

Author: Kate Cross

Like a drawer that’s been crammed with too much stuff, our brains can only cope with so much information. Pack more and more into that humble piece of furniture and you risk crumpling the contents and breaking the runners.


In technical speak, our brains would be suffering from ‘cognitive overload’, an all-too-familiar, too-much-on-your-plate state of being. 


“‘Cognitive load’ typically refers to the difficulty of a task,” says Bond University neuropsychology expert Oliver Baumann.


“The difficulty can be related to temporal demands (i.e. how much time is available for the task), attentional demands (i.e. are there distractors?), memory demands (i.e. how much information must be remembered?), and strategic and logical reasoning demands (i.e. how complex is the problem?),” he says.


Unsurprisingly, the more tasks we’re juggling and the greater their complexity, the higher our chances of feeling cognitively overloaded. Overlapping deadlines (including trying to remember what to do and when) can also contribute to this feeling, as can emotions associated with a task, such as stress, says Dr Baumann.


‘Everybody has a limit’


Writing for The Conversation, cognitive psychology professor Ben Newell says research has shown that our decisions become erratic the more chockers our brains become.


“Our thinking becomes less sharp,” adds Dr Baumann, who says among the effects of being “cognitively overwhelmed” are memory errors from old and new information “competing for storage space”, plus tiredness and hunger.


On the emotional or mental side, he says “prolonged intensive stress situations can wear the body down”.


“Everybody has a limit regarding cognitive demands,” says Dr Baumann, clarifying that limits “differ in line with our cognitive strengths and weaknesses”.


Some of us, he explains, have better memories than others, while tasks that we have mastered (say, vacuuming) or relish, don’t tend to deplete our cognitive reserves as much as unfamiliar or complex challenges. 


So, how do we lighten our cognitive load or ‘empty our brains’, so to speak?


By sleeping, says Dr Baumann.


“Rather than being idle, our brain undergoes a series of important maintenance functions while we are asleep,” he says, explaining that “irrelevant information is … removed, while important information is reinforced”.


This mechanism, he adds, “has been evolutionarily honed for millions of years – even flies sleep”. 


If, however, bedtime is a while off, it might be worth reassessing your to-do list and reminding yourself that you’re only human.


“Divide and conquer,” writes Professor Newell.


“[Don’t] feel you have to do everything at once,” he adds.


Easier said than done, but worth a try at least for the sake of our brains.




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