Cognitive Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Coping Strategies
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Cognitive Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Coping Strategies


Very often in the course of life, we get snapped out, processing even the simplest of information gets too difficult, hampering our efficiency and we end in a tight corner where the mind denies to take any load anymore. This bombardment of information significantly diminishes our ability to process it in a single unit and tends to lower our productivity, performance, and logicality. An individual suffers from cognitive overload when the combination of intrinsic, extraneous, and germane loads becomes overwhelming for the learner. It is not concerned with the IQ of a person, as the most intelligent person can process only a few chunks of information at a time.

Read More: 10 Signs of Intelligent People, According to Psychology

What is Cognitive Overload?

The human brain functions as the epicentre in managing and controlling all the vital functions of the body as it works 24/7. When the brain gets exposed to multiple information in quick succession, it tends to get overloaded and a person may feel cognitively unable to process or retain a chunk of it at a given time. This happens when you reach a point of paralysis of information, that is, not being able to process and then act on what is heard.

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Several factors are held responsible for cognitive overload, some of them are:

  1. Excessive Information the amount of information received plays a catalytic role in producing profound cognitive overload. The brain tends to shut down when it has to utilize more of its strength than usual. Overflow of information and being unable to decode it to proceed further can be overwhelming.
  1. Complex task the complexity and intricacy of a task is another vital factor when it comes to cognitive overload. Since the brain has to use its reservoir of knowledge to interpret and solve the complexities, it functions quite swiftly and utilizes the cognitive set of skills in search of the solution, hence, it tends to shut down because of the overload, making it difficult for the person to take rational decisions and think logically.
  1. Multitasking When the brain is involved in multiple tasks of different natures simultaneously, it is required to make use of various cognitive skills together. This certainly causes paralysis of information due to confusion and exhaustion, resulting in outward or external manifestations of cognitive overload.
  1. Lack of clear organization when the information, tasks, or systems are not structured or arranged in a way that makes it easy for individuals to understand, access, or manage them. It can lead to confusion, inefficiency, and difficulty in navigating through the elements, contributing to cognitive overload. As individuals struggle to process and make sense of disorganized information or tasks.
  1. Insufficient breaks or rest periods Breaks or rest pauses in between work, whether physical or mental state have facilitating effects on productivity and motivation level. In the absence of sufficient rest pauses, the brain gets ‘time out’, thereby putting an individual under cognitive overload.

Read More: How “Decision Distress” Impact Our Performance 

Symptoms of Cognitive Overload

The manifestation of cognitive overload has many faces, a few are listed below

  1. Difficulty concentratingOne manifestation of cognitive overload is, that a person finds it difficult to concentrate on even simple things which don’t demand much knowledge and may face incubation while trying to solve a problem.
  1. Decreased ability to make decisionsDue to the overflow of information, more than a higher amount of cognitive strength gets spent, leaving the individual perplexed and overwhelmed resulting in a diminished ability to make objective and cogent decisions.
  1. Impaired MemoryAs the brain struggles to process and store information effectively, due to overload, the brain tries to prioritize certain tasks, ignoring others, and hindering the encoding and retrieval of already stored information. The results can be forgetfulness, difficulty in recalling items, and challenges in retaining new information.
  1. Heightened Stress Level Because of cognitive overload, the brain gets overwhelmed with the overflow of information or tasks, which triggers the stress response. The ill effects can be increased cortisol levels, and physiological reactions, contributing to feelings of anxiety and tension.
  1. Reduced PerformanceCognitive overload can lead to reduced performance because of the strained capacity of the brain to process information effectively. It impairs a person’s ability to focus, make legitimate decisions, and execute tasks. Manifestations can be in the form of slower reaction time, lower accuracy, and an overall decline in cognitive ability.
  1. Anger– According to the Mayo Clinic health system, if information doesn’t fit with the way you think or feel, you may become angry at having your feelings or beliefs challenged. Repeated attempts to address a topic may lead to feelings of upset or anxiousness.
  1. The decline in cognitive functioning As excessive demands are being put on the brain, cognitive resources get strained, which leads to difficulty in information processing, decision-making, and memory retrieval. Cognitive skills can decline severely if exposure to cognitive overload is prolonged.

Cognitive overload arises when the demands on cognitive resources surpass an individual’s capacity to effectively manage them.

Managing Cognitive Overload

  1. Prioritize tasks: Segregate tasks based on their importance and priority. Feelings of being overwhelmed can be avoided if you focus on tasks of high priority.
  1.  Breakdown task: Divide an intricate task into smaller and manageable chunks, it makes information processing easy for the brain
  1.  Time management: Allocate specific time slots for different tasks, by setting time limits, one can prevent tasks from piling up.
  1.  Organize information: Organize information by using calendars, to-do notes, lists, or digital apps, clear organization reduces cognitive load.
  1.  Limit multitasking: Follow the rule of one task at a time, as multitasking can contribute to cognitive overload.
  1.  Learn to say No: Say no to unusual demands and work out of your jurisdiction, as it helps prevent excessive cognitive demands.
  1.  Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Indulge in practices like mindfulness guided imagery, or deep breathing exercises to reduce stress and improve cognitive resilience.
  1.  Healthy lifestyleFollow a healthy routine and ensure you get proper sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a balanced diet. Physical well-being supports cognitive functioning.
  2. Seek supportAsk for help from your colleagues or supervisors. Collaborative efforts can help distribute the cognitive load evenly.

Read More: What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

In conclusion, cognitive overload poses significant challenges to productivity, decision-making, and overall well-being. By understanding its causes and symptoms, individuals can take proactive steps to manage and mitigate its effects. Prioritizing tasks, organizing information, and practising mindfulness are effective strategies to alleviate cognitive burden. Moreover, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and seeking support when needed can enhance cognitive resilience.

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