You Can Blame ‘Load Theory’ for Turning Your Brain to Mush

Have you felt as if lockdown has you in a fog? You’re not alone, says a neuroscientist who studies our ability to concentrate. “There is a barrage of information we’re now facing, and working from home involves additional components,” says Nilli Lavie, professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London. “It’s difficult for everyone. Our system is not built to handle so much information.”

Lavie says that the concept known as “load theory” explains why we’re feeling out of sorts. We have limited brain capacity, and focusing on one thing requires filtering out other stuff. If our short-term memories—or our visual perceptions—are overloaded with more info than we can handle, we struggle to distinguish what matters, we become forgetful, and we’re easily distracted.

If your life was complicated before Covid-19, consider how much more you’re keeping track of now. Was that person six feet away? Did you just touch your face without washing your hands? Are your kids completing their home schooling? Are your boomer parents ignoring social distancing guidelines again? Does your home look presentable for that Zoom call? Is that Arizona outbreak going to cause a second wave in your city? Did you miss your online grocery delivery slot? Do other people secretly think your brain has turned to mush, too?

The deluge of info related to Covid-19 is all the more difficult to deal with, given its threatening nature. “We are programmed to prioritize information that has high ‘affective value,’ even if it’s harmful for us to do so,” says Lavie, referring to that which evokes strong emotions such as fear. The more our working memories are filled with these powerful emotional thoughts, the less capacity we have to distinguish important work tasks in front of us from the cacophony of everyday distractions that we’re usually able to tune out.

Suddenly, the sound of your kid playing in the background, that car driving past, or that non-urgent item way down on your to-do list hijacks your attention—even if you know it shouldn’t. “You’re constantly being bombarded with new information, or information you’ve recently heard is playing on your mind,” says Lavie. “That reduces your capacity to suppress or ignore irrelevant information while you’re completing another task.”

So what can you do about it? Here are Lavie’s suggestions:

Turn off and tune out. “Physically switch off the source of information while you’re on the job,” she says. “Don't check the news at lunchtime if you feel like it might distract you. It’s very likely to have a high emotional value at the moment.”

Reduce distractions. Close the door. Use earplugs. Declutter your workspace. Do anything you can to free up brain capacity.

Set realistic targets. “It’s important for employers to take all of this into account and not to increase employees’ anxiety,” says Lavie. “Just because one person can find a place of great focus, you shouldn’t assume everyone else is also able to do this.”

Bring yourself back. If you can’t focus on the work on the screen in front of you, try switching things up with an online puzzle or video game. “Do something just to bring you back to the screen where you have to do your task,” she suggests.

Remember: Everyone’s in the same boat. “Understand that this is natural and that a lot of this is not under our voluntary control. You can’t ignore information that’s threatening,” Lavie says. “It’s not just you. It’s everybody.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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