Developing a Learning Culture

Here’s the Secret Number to Help You Avoid Information Overload

You may not realize it, but we have a natural defense to avoid information overload. Imagine that someone is giving you a phone number. It’s almost universal: They will give you the first three numbers first (8-6-7) before giving you the last four numbers (5-3-0-9). Why do humans almost naturally default to this method of “chunking” information?

Well, it has a lot more to do with phone numbers–or songs from the 80s. It actually correlates to a neurological processed known as working memory. Your working memory is what’s responsible for holding important information and sorting it into short-term memory or discarding it completely.

As it turns out, your brain’s working memory capacity is limited based on a number of items of information given to you at a time. It might seem like a weakness, but a limited working memory actually gives new meaning to the term “TMI.”

This is Your Brain on Data

When it comes to remembering pieces of information in the moment, studies widely agree that the number is three to five.

This means your brain can only hold three to five pieces of data before it either converts to short-term memory or discards the information as unnecessary. Working memory is actually biologically expensive to the brain, so it has to have its limits. By stopping the absorption of data at three to five pieces, your brain is forced to make a decision: Is this important, or can I get rid of it?

Knowing that the brain’s working memory capacity is quite limited shines new light on how information is served to learners. There can be too much of a good thing, especially when presented without time to absorb and reflect. The art of “chunking”–breaking information up into smaller pieces–mimics what the brain does naturally to allow for better information retention.

Microlearning Memories

Too much information isn’t just when your grandpa tells you about his wild college years; it can occur when a learner is given too much data at once. The brain simply cannot absorb more than its fair share of information, which means anything presented past the first three to five pieces of data might be useless.

Microlearning is the ideal delivery method for improving learner retention and the conversion of information from working memory to short-term and even long-term memory. That’s because microlearning breaks those bits of data into bite-sized pieces that the brain can receive, hold, and convert as necessary. Whether it’s delivered via mobile phone or part of a team instant messaging platform, you don’t need information to be substantial for it to be significant to the learner–and the learner’s brain.

The next time you give someone your phone number, try an exercise: Give it to them in one long strand of numbers. Chances are that they’ll ask you to slow down and tell you the number again. It’s the curse and the blessing of a working memory: While it limits the amount of information that the brain can hold, it also naturally chunks data so it’s easier to absorb.