Know Your Limits, Your Brain Can Only Take So Much

If you make yourself aware of these 'noise' factors, you'll have an easier time avoiding a breakdown.

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By Michael Vaughan

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Don't go out and buy a new day planner or learn a five-step decision-making process -- they won't work. If they did, we would all be much happier and more effective. The truth is that to improve our thinking abilities, we need to understand the root of our problem -- our brains.

Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, conducted a study that measured people's brain activity while they addressed increasingly complex problems (i.e., noise). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure changes in blood flow, she found that as people received more information, their brain activity increased in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for making decisions and controlling emotions. But when the information load became too much, it was as though a breaker in the brain was triggered, and the prefrontal cortex suddenly shut down.

As people reach information overload, Dimoka explained, "They start making stupid mistakes and bad choices because the brain region responsible for smart decision making has essentially left the premises."

These breaker moments are becoming more and more frequent in most people's lives. The underlying issue is that most of the activities we do throughout the day contribute to the load. In any given day, you will likely find yourself at the supermarket selecting a cereal from among too many choices, at the office responding to never-ending emails, and at home multitasking on daily chores. All of these tasks with the associated information input begin to chisel away at your mental resources, leaving you flustered and even helpless when faced with making far more important decisions.

Related: How Your Brain Really Works (Interactive Graphic)

Over the last few years, we have observed that when participants in The Regis Company simulations become aware of some the contributing factors to breaker moments, they do better at filtering incoming data, helping them when they need to make tough calls. Here is a brief overview of some of the noise contributors and some tips to more effectively handle them:

Choice: The more choices we are given, the more tired and less effective we become. The human brain has limited resources and energy to expend to make each choice. In the time between getting up in the morning and going to bed in the evening, an average person makes thousands of decisions. Each choice we make drains a little more from our mental reservoir. If there are days you know you'll need to be at the top of your game, reduce the number of choices you need to make on those days.

Multitasking: With so many demands surrounding us all the time, it's tempting to try to do it all and at the same time. The truth, however, is we are optimized for task switching. When we switch between tasks, our brains must halt any processing of the current rule set and load a new rule set for the next task. This happens quickly. But halting, unloading, loading, and restarting takes a toll. To increase your performance or to enhance your ability to learn, it is important to focus on the task at hand.

Information abuse simply means dumbing down information to the point at which it is not questioned. Abuse is commonly seen in tools such as PowerPoint presentations, where rich data are distilled down to a few key messages. On the whole, key messages that are thoughtfully constructed and articulated can be helpful. The danger, however, is that our brains tend to be overly accommodating. Public speakers, politicians and marketers count on being able to provide information that subtly blends into the listener's understanding of the world without prompting questions or analysis. To improve your decisionmaking, look past the nicely packaged data to the conditions that shaped them.

Related: 'Reboot' Your Brain and Refresh Your Focus in 15 Minutes or Less

Michael Vaughan

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business. You can contact Michael at mvaughan@regiscompany or follow his blog at

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