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The Overflowing Brain: Most Important Book of 2008

We have tracked for several years the scientific studies published by Torkel Klingberg and colleagues, often wondering aloud, “when will educators, health professionals, executives and mainstream society come to appreciate the potential we have in front of  us to enhance our brains and improve our cognitive functions?”

Dr. Klingberg has just published a very stimulating the Overflowing Brain by Torkel Klingsbergpopular science book, The Overflowing Brain, that should help in precisely that direction. Given the importance of the topic, and the quality of the book, we have named  The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory The SharpBrains Most Important Book of 2008, and asked Dr. Klingberg to write a brief article to introduce his research and book to you. Below you have. Enjoy!

Research and Tools to Thrive in the Cognitive Age

By Dr. Torkel Klingberg

Do we all have attention deficits?

The information age has provided us with high technology which fills our days with an ever increasing amount of information and distraction. We are constantly flooded with on-the-go emails, phone calls, advertisements and text-messages and we try to cope with the increasing pace by multi tasking. A survey of workplaces in the United States found that the personnel were interrupted and distracted roughly every three minutes and that people working on a computer had on average eight windows open at the same time. There is no tendency for this to slow down; the amount and complexity of information continually increases

The most pressing concerns with this environment are: how do we deal with the daily influx of information that our inundated mental capacities are faced with? At what point does our stone-age brain become insufficient? Will we be able to train our brains effectively to increase brain capacity in order to stay in-step with our inexorable lifestyles? Or will we be stricken with attention deficits because of brain overload?

In his article “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coins the term “attention deficit trait” to characterize the situation in which so many of us find ourselves. This is not a new diagnosis of any use to doctors, but rather a description of the mental state that information technology, a faster pace, and changing work patterns have induced. Some would call it a lifestyle.

The point of Hallowell’s term is that it illustrates how the modern work situation, with its pace and simultaneous demands, often gives us the feeling of having attention difficulties and of not quite having the capacity to do our jobs. Our brains are being flooded. But is it really the case that the information society generally impairs peoples’ attentional abilities? What are attentional abilities, anyway, and exactly what in our complex work situations is mentally demanding?

Cognitive Demands in the Information Age

In my book “The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory I try to pinpoint the nature of the cognitive demands of modern life and the psychological and neural basis of our capacity limitations. One demand factor in our working lives is the incessant distractions: all the impressions that buzz around us like mosquitoes and make it hard for us to concentrate on what we’re doing. The torrent of information increases not only the volume of data we’re expected to take in but also the volume we need to shut out.

Another important demand factor is multitasking, which is the quick and easy solution for all those who want to get more done in less time. However, doing (or at least trying to do) several tasks simultaneously is one of our most demanding everyday activities. Running on a treadmill while watching TV usually isn’t too taxing, nor is chewing gum while walking in a straight line. But even such a mundane situation as talking on a cell phone while driving is not as easy as we’d like to think. Apart from the fact that its difficult to hold the wheel and shift gears with the same hand, or to keep our eyes on the road and on the phone’s display at the same time, there’s something in the mentally demanding task of telephoning that makes us worse drivers.

Information overload, distractions and multitasking are probably the most important factors in making the information age so cognitively demanding are.

The Role of Working Memory: challenges and opportunities

There are plenty of indications that those three factors are loading on our working memory capacity, which is our capacity to hold on to relevant information for short periods of time. The problem is that our working memory capacity is a scarce resource. The increase in information load thus meets a biological constraint in how much we can handle. A question that has always fascinated me is how this capacity constraint is wired in our brain, and if we can in some way increase this capacity, and this question is a thread that I follow throughout the book.

In the research that my colleagues and I have done at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, we have shown that training on working memory tasks, close or above the limit of our capacity, can improve our working memory. This improvement is not only confined to the trained tasks, but generalizes to other cognitive tasks requiring working memory and control of attention. We have also shown that this training improves the ability to focus in everyday life. The working memory capacity limitation is not immutable, but actually possible to stretch.

Furthermore, it is possible that the increasing information load not only is harmless, but might actually improve our cognitive abilities through improvement of working memory. The now well known Flynn effect tells us that fluid intelligence is increasing, presumably due to environmental demands on cognition. The most important cognitive demands of modern life relates to working memory, and the most important cognitive function underlying fluid intelligence is working memory capacity. The way environmental demands improves fluid intelligence might thus be through improvement on working memory capacity.

In other words, modern life itself may help make us more cognitively able. And emerging tools may enhance our abilities and better prepare us for the demands of the Information Age.

Reflections for the Future

Training our brains might thus be a way to keep up with the increasing demands of the information age. This might be especially relevant for those of us that are over 25 years of age, when working memory capacity starts to decline year by year, at the same time as the demands increase. In my book I, half jokingly, suggested that in the future we might see company-funded cognitive fitness training for employees. It was with a certain satisfaction that I recently read in SharpBrains blog about a new initiative by the USA Ice Hockey league to provide computerized cognitive training -focused on important perception and decision-making skills- to its players.

In the future we might be as aware of cognitive function as we know are obsessed with calories, diets, glycemic index and cardiovascular training, and brain training might be a part of our every day life.

Torkel KlingbergDr. Torkel Klingberg leads the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the Karolinska Institute, which is part of the Stockholm Brain Institute. He has recently written The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory (Oxford University Press, November 2008).

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16 Responses

  1. Alex Doman says:

    Alvaro,

    Thanks for sharing the info on The Overflowing Brain.

    Looking forward to reading it!

    Alex

  2. Amit =^) says:

    Thanks Alvaro for sharing this book. I was so thrilled to hear about it that I’ve already ordered the book.

    I look forward to reading it as well.

  3. Kenneth Cooper says:

    The following is my way of asking questions. It’s by no means critique. I’m a layman on the subject and hold no topic qualifications whatsoever (other than a lot of years of life experience).

    Regarding cell phone use, you say, “Apart from the fact that it’s difficult to hold the wheel and shift gears with the same hand, or to keep our eyes on the road and on the phone’s display at the same time, there’s something in the mentally demanding task of telephoning that makes us worse drivers.

    The implication here appears to be, multiple cognitive activity is the culprit. The lady I know who caused a terrible accident because of her use of cell phone while driving told me that, because of the importance of the conversation’s content, her focus drifted ever more away from all else and proceeded to focus, in total, on that conversation. That’s when she ran the stop light and T-boned another car while driving at more than 50 mph.

    Your book sounds interesting but it would seem to me that DEGREE of focus on each multi-tasking project would be of greater importance in a study than simply the number of tasks on looking at the problem of attention deficit.

    And yes, I often have several windows open on my computer, but this isn’t information overload, quite the contrary, on performing one task or even several tasks that I switch between, having the necessary resources for those projects at my fingertips (those other windows) results in significantly less cognitive load than having to frequently interrupt projects (not to mention flow of thought) for research elsewhere

    A few years back there were no automatic spread sheets, no scientific calculators, no word processors, and each research step required trips to the library. It was necessary to hold a significant amount of information in your head when using the slide rule, looking up tables, or using the rubber book in order to look up certain math conversions and then extrapolate for specifics. Also, it was necessary to interrupt your work when paged to the telephone rather than, as it is now, simply see an email message appear in one of those windows, a message that can be responded to based on priority it’s given …

    The point is, in this day in age, we have tools at our fingertips that will remember for us much of what is involved in these multiple tasks. The real issue today as I see it is the need to develop a new kind of discipline in order to keep these multiple tasks ordered, prioritized, and focused on as needed.

    Looking back at my ramblings here I find myself wondering if maybe the subject of multi-tasking doesn’t merit the attention it’s getting. Instead, maybe people need to stop thinking of it as a problem and consider the possibility that the amount of information being stored in multiple sites in our brain is no more than has been stored in those sites throughout near term history. Might we now simply be storing a different kind of information in those sites than before. (quick story: My son when being interviewed while performing in a rather well known quintet was asked what his secret to success was in learning the most difficult of instruments to play. His answer: Nobody ever told me it was difficult.) Heck, maybe multi-tasking is a problem simply because, our collective mind believes it to be a problem. Maybe the problem isn’t a problem at all, maybe there’s simply a need for a new way of disciplining our minds.

    Again, the way I learn is to say what I’m thinking and then wait for the responder to show me where I’m wrong .. and then wait for that responder to present new logic that will help me convert my way of viewing the issue.

    Sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter (George Bernard Shaw).

  4. Kenneth Cooper says:

    Oops! Sorry. I thought this note would go directly to the author; I didn’t realize it would be posted here. Please feel free to remove it.

  5. Hugo Vigoroso says:

    The Cooper letter offers a very interesting perspective?

  6. brians says:

    i am a firm believer, along with serious researchers, that multi-tasking is actually a misnomer. you can only FOCUS your attention on one thing at a time; flitting back and forth from activity to activity might reflect short durations of attentional focus on a given operation, but you can’t concentrate on calculations while listening to a coworker or reading an email. you do one or the other, albeit for perhaps seconds or even fractions of a second. i refer our readership to the book, The Open Focus Brain which talks not only about this misnomer in popular nomenclature, but also the stress it causes and the need to return to an open focus attentional field, moving away from the narrow focus concentration field whenever possible for better health and optimal brain function.

  7. About “there’s something in the mentally demanding task of telephoning that makes us worse drivers” –

    One important difference between having a conversation with someone in the car with you, and having a conversation on a cell phone, is what happens when you, the driver, doesn’t respond immediately to a question or comment by the conversation partner. A gap of more than a few seconds, if you’re on the phone, might mean a dropped call. In person, there is no such worry. Also, someone in the car with you can see if you’re changing lanes, making a turn, etc. This means that conversing on the phone has an implicit demand for fluency of response, with the additional drain on cognitive resources that this implies.

  8. I found this article somewhat insightful because I have had trouble lately when typing. I find myself reversing letters within a word. It is usually only two letters that are switched, but I still find it creepy. I think I am pressing the letters in the right order, but look up to find them in the wrong position. I think this may be a result of information overload, or yuppie disease. What do you think?

  9. More on on the negative effect of phoning while driving (whether or not you are holding the phone with your hand)from Steven Yantis, as quoted in Caroline Latham’s Nov. 11, 2006 post on this blog:

    “Directing attention to listening effectively ‘turns down the volume’ on input to the visual parts of the brain. The evidence we have right now strongly suggests that attention is strictly limited – a zero-sum game. When attention is deployed to one modality – say, in this case, talking on a cell phone – it necessarily extracts a cost on another modality – in this case, the visual task of driving.”

  10. Many good comments here…I do recommend reading the book, which presents a very useful and in-depth discussion on the topic.

  11. Susan Durnell says:

    This is very interesting to me as an aging (aged?) adult. However, I am even more interested in how all this thinking and cognitive research applies to atypical brains. My daughter has a very mild case of holoprosencephaly, accompanied by partial agenesis of the corpus callosum. (Basically, the brain is joined in a spot where it should not be and not joined in a place where it should be.)These anomalies can cause a wide range of effects, but hers now at age 20 are mostly related to learning, memory, and higher-level thinking skills, many of which now seem to be lumped together as “executive functioning.” I wonder whether the interventions and methods that work to help neurotypical people could apply to a community college student struggling with these physiological conditions.

  12. Hello Susan, only a neuropsychologist and neurologist may provide a relevant answer to such a specific question regarding your daughter, so I encourage you to consult one. In general, cognitive training is often deployed in the cognitive rehabilitation post-strokes, traumatic brain injury and a variety of so-called “brain disorders”. Kind regards

  13. Ally Ladak says:

    Sounds like an interesting book.

    I look forward to reading the book soon.

  14. marilyn cleland says:

    I wonder whether it is possible to learn something really well — for instance, playing an instrument — without the ability to focus and concentrate. I wonder if “fluid intelligence” inhibits focus and attention.

  15. April Lightsey says:

    Regarding the proposed link between the Flynn effect (increasing IQ scores) and working memory, I’m skeptical. Just looking at the tests & subtests with the largest gains, there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between the increase in scores and the working memory demands of the test. Also, I don’t know of research suggesting large increases in working memory in the last 30 or 40 years. We still seem to remember about about 7 items. On the other hand, as commented elsewhere, modern technology may offer meaningful “prostheses” for our working memory, allowing us to juggle more information at once by holding it externally on our desktops and smart phones. In a way, this reminds me of the literature suggesting that illiterate cultures have better long-term memory, suggesting that when literacy made long-term memory less necessary, less cognitive space was accorded to it, perhaps freeing the mind for other kinds of activity.

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