Does Cognitive Load Lowers IQ?

Holidays image

For some, the holidays are quite stressful. This month, I will introduce you to an important concept that has a dramatic affect on your life. In fact, this concept can literally make you smarter (or dumber) and even dictate job success.

You will learn why this occurs, and what you can do to reduce the problem. Plus, I will make connections for your kids in school. The concept is grounded scientifically and I will show you the evidence. In fact, people joke about this concept all the time. They don't know that it is actually real. The mind-blowing concept that can change your life (and raise student achievement) is "Cognitive Load."

The Research

Cognitive load is the amount of stuff you are juggling mentally at any given time. Humans cycle their thoughts and feelings through their head all day long. This concept was first proposed by John Sweller in 1988, while studying problem-solving. He says that the amount of information, the complexity and the interactions that must be processed simultaneously is our cognitive load.

New learning can be processed in real time or overwhelm the brain based on:

  1. Your knowledge of related background information in long-term memory,
  2. The emotional context and valence, and
  3. The strength of your working memory.

How can this concept make you or your students feel stupid, or pretty smart? You guessed it. Unless your students are prepped with strategies (long-term and short-term memory skills), they will go into cognitive overload and freeze up... not good.

Here's an example of cognitive load issues in the classroom: If you work with students from poverty, scarcity of resources in their lives consumes mental space. You know what that's like; if you are worried about paying rent or making a house payment, it constantly uses up part of your brain's functioning power.

Cognitive capacity can be stretched thin because of excessive cognitive load issues, said Harvard economist Dr. Mullainathan, part of the research team on a new study. The non-stop worry that comes with being poor demands constant cognitive juggling and mental energy. As a result, the poor have less brainpower to devote to school (unless you, the teacher, know how to change it).

In two countries (U.S. and India), with very different types of poverty, the researchers looked into the daily cognitive load. In both countries, the results were the same. The poor are more likely to make mistakes and make poor decisions that amplified and perpetuated their problems. The mental strain was typically costing poor people as much as 13 IQ points (Shah, Mullainathan & Shafir, 2012). In short, too much on your mind hurts your thinking skills and intelligence.

Here are other examples of loss in brainpower: If you feel very guilty about something you have done, you can subtract 15% of your brainpower. If you are going to a holiday function and you are worried about what others will think of you (instead of thinking about how you can be interested in others), you can subtract 20%. If you are trying to prepare a holiday dinner and at the same time, you are worried about being caught because you are having an extramarital affair, you can subtract 50% of your brainpower. If you are in an abusive relationship at home or being beaten every day, you can subtract 40% of your brainpower. The more things weigh on your mind, the less capacity you have for vitality, health and joy.

If you are thinking of what else you could be doing right now (besides reading this awesome article), you just lost another 10% of brain power. Fail to get a full night's sleep and you can temporarily lose the amount of brainpower equal to 10 IQ points (Wolfson & Carskadon, 2005; Killgore, Kahn-Greene, Lipizzi, Newman, Kamimori & Balkin, 2008).

In short, the more you have on your mental plate, or the more plates you are juggling in the air, the worse your cognitive skills will be. Worry too much over the holidays (or anytime) and you lose brainpower. Research suggests that situational stress (like social anxiety during the holidays) impairs attentional and cognitive powers. Worry too much about what others think and you get dumber (Moriya & Sugiura, 2012). One professor of medicine, psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at UCLA studies the biological pathways by which social environments influence gene expression. He says, "I know what misery looks like on a genetic level, and it is not good."

But is this all bad news?

Actually, it is not. Now, let's go to the "what to do about it" section.

Practical Applications

Let' flesh out each of the studies listed above. This is fairly easy to do. What you are seeing is two separate problems. While they are related, they require different solutions.

To help your learners succeed at school, you can reduce their cognitive load three ways:

  1. Make class a safe place, where learners will not be threatened, bullied or made fun of by anyone. Give learners a vehicle for expression to talk about what is important, whether it is a small team, a partner or best yet, a journal for private writing.
  2. Give learners tools to memorize the basics, also called memory tools. Use association, key words, acronyms, loci method or peg words. This will free up their working memory to juggle new learning. Post up key ideas and give learners access to them around the room, so they can refer to concepts, models of thinking (such as, study steps) and key words without having to do the load-inducing work of remembering them.
  3. Teach working memory skills.

To reduce stressors and help learners get their life back, remember that your brain has filters that help it decide whether something is stressful or not. The first filter is whether the situation or person is relevant to your goals in life. If your brain says, "Yes, this is very relevant to me," then the next filter kicks in. That second filter is sense of control. If something is relevant and you feel in control, the stress is low. If it is relevant and you feel out of control, the stress is high.

What's the relevance of working with learners who are chronically stressed? You can lower their stress levels three ways:

  1. Give learners more perceived control over their lives at school. Offer responsibilities, leadership and invite their suggestions to raise the sense of control.
  2. Provide coping tools for learners to help themselves better manage their stress.
  3. Keep learners engaged in class to provide a sense of purpose and connectedness.

Let's review what we have so far. Cognitive load is the amount of stuff we are juggling at any given time. Too much cognitive load and we feel "stupid"... and IQ can drop (seriously). Too many worries (real or imagined) can overload the cognitive capacity and make us feel "dumb."

Learn to free up your mind to live free and healthy. The solutions are:

  1. teach better cognitive skills
  2. help learners memorize the lower levels of content scaffolding
  3. teach better self-management, and
  4. make the classroom safe, with opportunities for expression.

This is one of many reasons to teach yourself how to run your own brain and a good reason to meditate. It's also a way of saying, "Stay in the moment. Let go of that which you cannot control. Be honest with others and yourself. Think affirming thoughts. Take a deep breath. Relax. Picture your goal and a clear pathway. You can do this."

By the way, many paths will get you there.


John Sweller. Cognitive Load Theory (Explorations in the Learning Sciences). Springer.