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Cognitive Load: The Language of Mental Performance

High cognitive load refers to a situation where a person's working memory is overloaded with information, making it difficult for them to process or complete a task efficiently. Reducing the cognitive load to an optimum level -- one that is neither too high nor too low -- can have a wide variety of benefits like improving performance, preventing errors, advancing learning, enhancing user experience, and increasing safety.

Here are some examples of activities that can impose a high cognitive load:

  1. Multitasking: Trying to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously can increase cognitive load, as it requires constant switching of attention and working memory resources.

  2. Complex problem-solving: Solving complex problems that require extensive analysis and planning can be mentally exhausting and impose a high cognitive load.

  3. Learning new information: Trying to learn and remember new information can impose a high cognitive load, especially when the information is dense or complex.

  4. Performing under pressure: Performing tasks under time constraints or in high-pressure situations can increase cognitive load and effect performance.

  5. Decision-making: Making important decisions, especially when the options are numerous or complex, can be mentally demanding and increase cognitive load.

  6. Information overload: Being bombarded with a large amount of information, such as in a fast-paced work environment or while studying, can impose a high cognitive load.

In addition to the characteristics of the task, such as time constraints and task complexity, the amount of cognitive load exerted can also depend on the characteristics of individual performing the task. For example, people with greater expertise tend to exert less mental effort when completing a relevant task than novices or those with less expertise. On the other hand, older adults sometimes exert more mental effort to complete a task (i.e., as we get older, our cognitive ability decreases, which increases our cognitive load).

Traditional measures of cognitive load and how they fall short

Traditionally, cognitive load has been assessed using subjective measures, physiological measures, or performance measures:

  • Subjective measures consist of self-reports, where the individual identifies how much mental effort they exerted during a specific task. However, people tend to be poor judges of themselves, which can lead to misrepresentations of cognitive load.

  • Physiological measures, such as heart rate variability and brain activity, offer a more objective assessment of cognitive load, but these methods are expensive, invasive, and often inconvenient for measuring cognitive load in real-world settings.

  • Performance measures evaluate how well one carries out a task, which may include assessing the time it takes to complete the task or the number of errors made during the task. Nevertheless, while two people can achieve the same results on a task, one might exert more mental effort than the other based on individual differences, like expertise or age.

Examples of using language to measure cognitive load

Research demonstrates that analyzing people’s natural language can provide an effective measure of their cognitive load, and measuring it with language mitigates the limitations and obtrusive nature of traditional approaches. Cognitive processing language is comprised of language that reflects the degree to which someone exerts mental effort to understand their environment or situation (e.g., how, why, suppose, interpret) and has been implicated as an effective marker of cognitive load in many research studies.

For instance, people who engaged in a high cognitive load emergency fire-fighting task simulation—where individuals acted as operators navigating a control room scenario—used more cognitive processing language during the exercise than individuals engaging in the low cognitive load simulation.

A similar pattern of results was demonstrated in a study assessing cognitive load in physicians who were asked to diagnose a hypothetical patient after being exposed to a high cognitive load patient scenario and a low cognitive load scenario. Results showed that physicians used more cognitive processing language in their diagnostic reflections after exposure to a high cognitive load patient scenario rather than a low cognitive load patient scenario.

Another study examining cognitive load in police work found that novice police officers used more cognitive processing language compared to more experienced police officers when evaluating incidents. These results coincide with research substantiating how experts, with the necessary skills and abilities, exert less mental effort (i.e., experience lower cognitive load) when executing relevant tasks than novices.

How to measure cognitive load from language

Using Receptiviti’s Cognition Framework, you can measure cognitive load from language of employees, customers, patients, or anyone who matters to your business.

Although this article focuses on cognitive processing language as a measure of cognitive load, research shows that cognitive processing language is also predictive of a number of mental states, some that involve cognitive impairment (e.g., depression and loneliness) and some that involve cognitive improvement (e.g., post-traumatic growth).

Contact us to learn how Receptiviti can help you measure and understand cognitive load to improve performance, prevent errors, advance learning, enhance user experience, and increase safety.


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