Dec 27, 2008
By: Alvaro Fernandez
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 popular 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.
— Dr. 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).