Monday, February 21, 2011

I Challenge You to Do Nothing for 2 Minutes!

With its relentless focus on productivity and efficiency, the business environment tend to stress, well, stress over relaxation.

But now researchers are finding that doing nothing is actually really good for the brain. It turns out that down time is as important as sleep for allowing the brain to consolidate learning.

Especially downtime outside.

But what if you can't get outside and are stuck at your screen? Try a visit to

which the New York Times reporter Matt Richtel, who writes about digital distraction, posted to his blog.

A while back I aired this radio commentary about a related topic--falling asleep while listening to the sounds of the surf. There's something almost primal in the soothing sounds of the ocean.

Anyone else trying to build a little downtime in their busy days?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Incredible Tale of Cognitive Overload

As instructors, or students looking to instruct, we use slideshows a lot. With every new slide we impart a chunk of the story: the story of a product’s evil half-sister, the story of how an industry found happily ever after. With every slideshow we want our audience to acquire meaningful learning (deep understanding of the story and its many characters) through multimedia instruction (teaching that uses words and pictures).  
Ideally, the listeners can not only recall the story (retention), but can also integrate their acquired knowledge with stories of their own (integration).
But sometimes we get swept away by our narrative potential: we use too many words and pictures. It is the equivalent of the writer who obsessively pounds her reader over the head with metaphors (much like this post). In Nine Ways To Reduce Cognitive Overload in Multimedia Learning, Richard E. Mayer observes that multimedia learning is acutely sensitive to cognitive overload. He reminds us that audiences have a limited capacity for cognitive processing. Handling that capacity, feng shui’ing the space in the listener’s brain, can mean the difference between "good" and "meaningful" story-telling.
There are infinite ways to overload, and you have done or seen half of them. Possibly the most egregious is simultaneous appeal to two cognitive channels. Suppose you want to represent a product’s life cycle with words and animation. Teaching too much and too fast means listeners will not meaningfully translate the visual into the verbal, and the verbal into the visual. By the time viewers select germane words or picture from one segment, the next one is underway, stifling the ability to retain and integrate. Life cycle? What life cycle?
But alas, the Fairy Godmother brandishes her presentation wand. She cuts the presentation into bite-sized segments, with time in between so that the viewer can complete each cognitive process. Ever the erudite mentor, she also suggests pre-training which means first teaching the components and terms of the to-be-learned idea. For instance, tell your audience what ‘growth’ and ‘maturity’ signify before unveiling the life cycle graph.
And you're off to the ball.