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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:


    Thanks for shar­ing the info on The Over­flow­ing Brain.

    Look­ing for­ward to read­ing it!


  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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