Cognitive bottlenecks: the inherent limits of the thinking mind

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The “thinking mind” is the part of the mind that seeks to make sense of the world; it analyses situations, imagines scenarios, evaluates solutions, and tells stories. It’s an inherent aspect of what makes us human. However, it’s limited by multiple cognitive bottlenecks.

Why does it matter? Because these cognitive bottlenecks limit how much information we can process at one time, how many tasks we can simultaneously focus on, and how many parameters we can consider while making a decision.

Intrinsic limitations of the thinking mind

The human mind has many limitations. For instance, our limited sensory capabilities mean that there are many sources of information we cannot perceive at all. Dogs can smell emotions such as fear and ​​can tell the difference between two people based on their scent alone. Bees can see infrared, which is invisible to the human eye.

For the most part, we are naturally aware of these sensory limitations. We know we are not able to perform echolocation or to see in the dark. But, somehow, we tend to overestimate our cognitive capacities — our ability to concurrently process multiple streams of information or to work on several tasks at the same time.

So we multitask: we respond to emails while we listen to a presentation, we monitor social media channels while creating new content, we finish typing up a report while responding to a colleague’s questions.

We believe that by combining two tasks, we will complete them sooner than if we worked on them separately. We also trust that we can consider many different facts when making complex decisions. But our thinking mind is limited by two Big Bad Bottlenecks: our attention and our working memory.

Using brain scanning and behavioural experiments, researchers at the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neurosciences at Vanderbilt University have identified a unified attentional bottleneck in the human brain, which impacts both perception and action.

Simply put, we’re bad at dividing our attention between different tasks. The research team explains: “What the present results point to is the severe capacity limit of this adaptive coding system in implementing more than one task set at a time, thereby impeding our ability to consciously perceive, and appropriately respond to, successive events in the world.”

Working memory is the second major cognitive bottleneck that limits our thinking mind. It allows us to retain multiple pieces of information for short-term processing. It’s what’s involved when you’re trying to keep a number in mind while solving an equation or when you’re holding onto multiple concepts so you can connect them together in your head, and it’s important for activities such as reading, writing, having a conversation, and making decisions.

The problem is that working memory is extremely limited in capacity and duration, which can impact learning and decision-making. In the words of Dr Bill Cerbin, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning, explains: “Humans are endowed with remarkable cognitive capacities but one area where we are seriously limited is working memory.”

“Working memory is the mental space where we do conscious, active thinking — and that space has limited capacity. (…) A fundamental problem in learning is that working memory is a bottleneck — everything new that we learn has to go through working memory before we can commit it to permanent or long term memory,” he adds.

Everyone will have different profiles for levels of attention and working memory, and your cognitive capacities also vary throughout the day and throughout the years. Being aware of the existence of these cognitive bottlenecks can help you avoid being overconfident in your cognitive capacities, and to make more sound decisions at work and in your daily life.

How to manage your cognitive bottlenecks

You’d think that with sufficient training you may be able to overcome these cognitive bottlenecks. However, research suggests that such interventions don’t yield long-term improvements. So what exactly can you do to deal with these limitations?

Here are three strategies that don’t rely on specific training and that you can start applying straight away:

  • Offload some of your thinking. Instead of relying on your mind alone for information processing and decision making, use tools for thought that help you collect and connect ideas together. Start taking notes and applying mental models to navigate complex decisions. Maintain a mind garden to track your thoughts. You can even find a thinking buddy or join a community to discuss your projects, ask questions, share your doubts, and gather more insights.
  • Plan for focused chunks of work. Instead of trying to multitask, define clear tasks and block time in your calendar to complete them. Close all other apps, put your phone in another room, and make sure people around you know that you are in focus mode — for example by closing the door or by wearing your headphones.
  • Practice mindful productivity. Instead of blaming yourself anytime you notice you’re distracted, gently bring back your attention to the task at hand. If it keeps on happening, simply take a short break to recharge your mental batteries. Calmly acknowledge and accept your feelings and thoughts while engaged in work or creative activities. Create a metacognition practice for yourself, such as journaling or a weekly review.

Once we get rid of the illusionary multitasking and the toxic productivity, cognitive bottlenecks are not inherently bad. They are just characteristics of our mind we need to consider when we plan our work and interact with the world. Instead of investing in expensive brain training apps, apply the above simple cognitive management strategies to unshackle your productivity without creating unnecessary stress.

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