Cognitive Bandwidth – here comes the (semi) science…

Stare into a white picture and try and empty your mind.  Concentrate on nothing except the whiteness of the white…

Now think what your brain is doing whilst you are at rest.  Your heart is still being told to pump blood around, your diaphragm is still being stimulated to help you breathe, your memory is still moving stuff from the short term bit to long term storage.

So couple this with all the other things that you have to do during the day and is it any wonder that sometimes our brain “lets us down”?

In my previous career I was supposed to teach people to multitask to do a job.  A little bit of research and some conversations with some educational psychologists soon taught me that we don’t actually multitask; rather we attack tasks in a linear manner, either doing “little and often” or “completing and moving on”.  Our brain has to apportion processing power to a task and sometimes decides that some things are less important than others and drops these off the list of “things to do”.  This is where the cognitive bandwidth fits in – there is only so much available brain power to complete tasks, therefore something has to give.  Under normal circumstances the brain can trigger the release of cortisone as part of the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism, however this is a temporary fix and the results of too much cortisone release are documented as “interfering with learning and memory” (Bergland, 2013) amongst other side effects.

Then put yourself in the position of a primary school child, maybe somewhere on the ASD spectrum (aren’t we all?).  You’re concentrating really hard just to sit still and listen, let alone apply any kind of processing power to what you are actually required to do in the class.  Is it any wonder that these children have concentration and memory issues?

I once described teaching to a non teacher as trying to spin 30 plates, with somebody trying to smash 5 of them, whilst 10 are on fire and somebody is outside the room pouring petrol in.  It is a constant, delicate act of balance and sometimes magic to make it look like the smooth, orderly and beautiful learning environment that is going on in your classroom.  Remember this analogy, learn what things on your list are not really that important and apply your processing power to the things that matter.

Above all though, look after yourself – stress is a real killer…


Bergland, C. Cortisol: Why “The Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1



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