The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory
Oxford University Press, USA
I can’t remember where I heard about this book (see subtitle) but it sounded like it might have some answers on how to deal with the torrent of information that washes over me each day. As it turns out, this is not a self-help book for information addicts, nor is it an appeal for society to return to simpler times. No, its argument is that information overload is good for us.
Most of the book is a fascinating trip through recent brain science as it relates to working memory. Working memory is the function in the brain that allows us to hold several pieces of information or thoughts in our head simultaneously so that we can do something with them. Things like repeating a phone number until we can find a pen, doing some quick mental math to compare prices in the grocery store, or holding on to the meaning of each clause in a long sentence until you get to the end, are possible thanks to working memory. Like the RAM in our computers, the capacity of our working memory is a major determiner of our overall cognitive abilities.
Working memory is intimately linked with concentration. Concentration and working memory use overlapping parts of the brain, and they seem to work together—the better we can concentrate, the better our working memory, and vice versa. One of the author’s own experiments involved creating a video game that exercised working memory and giving it to children with ADD to play with. Not only did the children’s working memories improve in a matter of weeks, their ability to concentrate and sit still was also improved.
Working memory is also the best predictor of general intelligence and IQ. The higher a person’s working memory, the higher their intelligence. It stands to reason that the better you can concentrate and the more complexity in thought you can handle, the more intelligent you are and the higher you can score on IQ tests.
The experiment with the children with ADD and the connection between working memory and IQ would seem to suggest that we can actually increase our intelligence by improving our working memory. Indeed this seems to be happening naturally. Average IQ has been steadily increasing, decade by decade, and even seems to be accelerating. This has been known for some time but psychologists couldn’t account for it. Klingberg suggests that the reason is that our societies have been getting more complex, forcing us to master more information in order to participate, and this overloads our working memory, which responds by getting stronger.
Klingberg counters the usual argument that mainstream culture is being “dumbed down” by observing that television and movies are far more complex and intellectually challenging than they used to be. In the past stories would be told in a straightforward, chronological manner and in simple, familiar terms, while today the viewer is presented with mysteries to unravel, blanks to fill in, flashbacks and flash-forwards to keep track of, exotic elements, and all kind of surprise twists.
This last fact suggests something that the author mentions but unfortunately doesn’t elaborate on, which is that our brains enjoy challenge. We hunger for novelty, for puzzles, and for information about our world. I’ve read elsewhere that our brain actually has an insatiable appetite for new information. Unlike the rest of the brain’s feedback loops, getting new information does not satisfy the craving, it increases it. So it’s no wonder that we have created cultural complexity, and that we keep upping the ante as our brain’s capacity to cope with complexity increases.
For those who would like to get ahead of the curve, there isn’t a whole lot in the book, or in the research literature, on how to effectively increase one’s working memory or IQ (though that doesn’t stop marketers from making claims about brain-building products). Researchers have found that strenuous daily challenges are required—just doing the Sunday crossword won’t cut it. In fact crossword puzzles don’t cut it at all. According to one prominent study, chess is the best activity for training the brain, with reading also being helpful. Doing crosswords has almost no effect.
There is also the controversial issue of using drugs to increase cognitive ability. Ritalin, the drug most prescribed for ADD, does in fact improve working memory whether you have ADD or not. So should we be taking it if we want to get ahead? Some students already do. But this obviously raises a number of ethical and medical issues. Pharmaceutical companies are already developing drugs specifically for improving cognitive function, so we will be dealing with this issue soon. As a person whose brain has been impaired by disease, I have to say that I would be very tempted to take that pill, depending on the side-effects. Until then, I’ll just continue to self-medicate with chess and books and information overload.