Explore Mode

Written by Larisa A. White

We’ve all experienced cognitive overload. It’s that awful experience in which we are trying to jam too much information into our working memories, and since working memory is limited, we are losing track of bits and pieces, swapping info in and out, making so-called “careless errors,” and generally feeling tired and cranky from all the effort. The problem we had hoped to be solving is now more of a mess than when we started, and we are STUMPED.

I imagine this must be how Columbus felt, as he went over all his navigational calculations, trying to figure out how a simple journey across the Atlantic to India had landed him in Central America!

Now, Tinker Toy Traffic explained why this happens. And we know that we can help prevent cognitive overload by taking time to build schema (see Polkadots & Sunbeams), and to sleep so those schema enter long-term memory (see Nap Time). We can also give our brains a brief Recess, to improve our working memory function. But what if you have neglected to do those things, and you are sitting in an exam room, and there are only two minutes left to solve the #*!%$ problem?

The trick is to take a deep breath, grab a piece of scratch paper, and calmly enter “Explore Mode.”

Research in the field of cognitive science** shows that goal-oriented approaches to problem solving often prevent us from finding the very solution we seek. The reason is that our working memories get clogged with information about what the answer should look like, how much time we have left to find the answer, what will happen to us if we don’t find the right answer, keeping track of all the givens, constants, equations, postulates, and theories we might need to use in the solution. With all that data rattling around, there are no empty slots in working memory left for thinking!

So, pick up your pencil, and empty some of those slots. Write down a reminder of what the answer should look like. Then forget it. Write down the list of givens and constants. Then forget them, too. Forget trying to get to an answer. Just explore everything you have in your long-term memory, that might apply to this problem. Write those things down, and brainstorm some more. Then explore the ideas you jotted on your scratch paper. Noodle around with them. See where they lead. Very often, when you free up your working memory to think like this, that evasive answer will simply fall in your lap.

* Images in this post are all in the public domain.
** For those interested in the research behind is post, check out:

Kirschner, Paul A. (2002) “Cognitive Load Theory: Implications of Cognitive Load Theory on the Design of Learning,” in Learning and Instruction, v. 12, pp. 1-10

Sweller, John. (1988) “Cognitive Load during Problem Solving: Effects on Learning,” in Cognitive Science, v. 12, pp.257-285.