Why Your Brain Goes Fuzzy
Updated: Feb 26
You might not be familiar with Cognitive Load Theory but you’re very familiar with its practical effects.
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) explains how the amount of mental effort you have to use to process information affects your learning and memory.
For example, imagine you’re trying to learn a new software program that involves many complicated steps and instructions. You may feel overwhelmed and your brain starts aching.
You struggle to remember everything.
In fact, you struggle to remember anything at all.
This is because the amount of information you are trying to cope with far exceeds your Cognitive Load capacity, leading to cognitive overload followed by a strong desire to go and have a little lie down somewhere quiet.
CLT proposes that there are limits to the amount of ‘stuff’ we can process at any one time.
If too much information is presented too quickly or in a complex way our brain just packs up.
This happens to me every time my wife starts giving be a detailed blow-by-blow account of how her day has been in the office. By the time she’s got on to what Janet in Resources said to Henry in maintenance regarding Ingrid's meeting with Carlos and Ethelred, I've lost both the cognitive capacity to process and the desire to listen to any more.
Cognitive Load theory distinguishes between three types of load:
Intrinsic load refers to the nature of the beast - the inherent difficulty of the material being learned.
For example, I’m sure you’re familiar with how difficult it is to learn a new language.
It requires a lot of mental effort to process all that unfamiliar vocabulary, unfriendly grammar and even unfathomable pronunciation.
In such circumstances, you could reduce the intrinsic load by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces.
For example, you could focus on learning basic vocabulary words first before moving on to more complex sentence structures.
By doing this, you can reduce the amount of intrinsic load you experience, making the learning process more effective and less overwhelming.
Extraneous load, on the other hand, is caused by factors unrelated to the subject, such as distractions or poor instructional design.
If you’ve ever tried to concentrate on your irregular verbs while someone is practicing the trombone in the next cubicle, you know what I mean.
Although the noise is unrelated to the task at hand, it still adds to your overall cognitive load and make it harder to focus and retain information.
Bad lighting, poor printing and overcomplicated instructions all add to extraneous load.
Finally Germane load is the mental effort you have to make to process all of the incoming data you want to learn and to integrate it with prior knowledge.
To optimise germane load, you could use strategies such as vocalisation or reflection, which help to deepen your understanding of the new language and make connections with your prior knowledge.
Or to help with the effort of committing something to memory you might use a mnemonic device such as a visual association or memory palace.
Cognitive overload is one of the commonest mistakes learners face.
Whether watching a PowerPoint presentation or reading a ‘How-to’ book, we are exposed to too much, too soon and our brain quickly collapses.
This can be improved by reducing extraneous load in a training setting by reducing distractions and presenting information in a clear and organised manner.
Similarly, rationing new ideas into small doses and breaking down complex concepts into smaller chunks reduces intrinsic load.
Finally, providing examples, allowing for questions and providing opportunities for reflection can keep the germane load under control.
Another example of where CLT can be regulated to support learning and memory is in the use of multimedia.
Research has shown that using a variety of visual supports such as graphics and animations can improve learning when they are presented in a way that help germane load.
For instance, providing verbal explanations along with visual aids can help learners integrate the information, while unnecessary or irrelevant animations can be counterproductive increase the extraneous load.
So the next time your brain feels fuzzy, consider your cognitive load.
Are you trying to take in too much, too quickly?
Is there too much extraneous load?
And is there an alternative and better way of taking in the same thing (by watching a video or discussing with a colleague)?
By getting your Cognitive Load under control, you’re also controlling your ability to acquire, absorb and apply your new knowledge.
And that’s what Learnability is all about.