The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory by Torkel Klingberg, looks at the limits and possibilities of the brain. Can our Stone Age brains handle being bombarded by emails, phone calls, advertisements, text messages, blogs etc…? Klingberg suggests that if we find a balance between the demand of everyday activities and our limited brain capacity, we can maximally develop our working memory-improving our brains and ourselves. In the excerpt below we see an example of what happens when we tax our brains too much.
If we do not focus our attention on something, we will not remember it. Absentmindedness is one of the most common causes of forgetfulness-or, as memory research and author Daniel Schacter puts it, one of the “seven sins of memory.” A dramatic illustration of this is the story of the missing Stradivarius. A string quartet has just performed a concert in Los Angeles, one of the violinists having played on a particularly valuable violin, a priceless seventeenth-century Stradivarius. After the concert, the quartet gets ready to drive back to their hotel. The violinist, no doubt tired after the performance and perhaps with his mind on how well they have played and the morning’s reviews, absentmindedly places the violin on the roof the car as he climbs in. The car drives off, and when they arrive, he realizes that his violin is missing-a mystery that remains unresolved for twenty-seven years until it is identified in a workshop, where it has been handed in for repair. This demonstrates how attention is essential, albeit insufficient at times, to our ability to store information in our memories. If your attention is directed elsewhere when you put your glasses down, it will be difficult for you to remember later where you left them. The information never made it through the portal.
When we direct our attention toward a place or an object, we become better and more efficient at interpreting its information content and are more able to detect slight changes in its appearance. If Linda [our test subject] is on her way home late at night and thinks she spies someone lurking in a doorway, she will stop and focus all her attention on that spot. She will not ignore another figure appearing in a neighboring doorway, but she will be better at detecting subtle shifts in the shadows surrounding the doorway on which she has focused her attention. Her attention will not only improve her ability to perceive changes but also speed up her reaction time should a menacing silhouette emerge from out of the gloom.