Tag Archives: knowledge

How my husband broke my brain: a user’s guide to cognitive load theory

It’s the weekend. Other couples tour Ikea, visit garden centres, wipe chocolate ice-cream off their children’s faces. My husband and I debate whether or not it matters that people don’t understand what a browser is.*

My argument is that if they can’t tell the difference between a browser and search engine technology, that’s just good design. Browsers, search engines … who cares what they’re called, so long as everyone knows how to use them?

His argument is People who don’t understand the simple fundamentals of the technology they use are only ever going to scratch the surface of what they can do with it. The full benefits of technology shouldn’t be the preserve of the few, but of the many, and people need to take responsibility for learning about this stuff.

Of course, we’re both kind of right … so we throw some ideas around, iron out wrinkles in the discussion. He can’t believe that people might not be interested in how their technology actually works; I point out that a lack of understanding of basic physics never stopped anyone from enjoying radio, television, or a movie.

And then he drops the bomb.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the benefits that have accrued from understanding of new technologies. For example …”

By the time he gets to ‘accrued’ in the first sentence, I’ve lost it. “What?

“It’s not that complicated,” he says. (My husband is frequently smarter than I am, and most of the time he knows whether I am genuinely lost or just being an intellectual slob.)

“It is if you don’t know what the idea at the end of the sentence is,” I say, miffed. “If I’d been reading your sentence, I could have gone back and parsed it again. But this … there were like four abstract concepts before it even began meaning anything.”

“Huh,” says my husband.

“You totally overloaded my working memory!” I say.

My husband, who is used to comments like this by now, says nothing.

“It’s the curse of knowledge,” I tell him.

“It’s what?”

The curse of knowledge. When you know what you’re talking about, but the audience doesn’t, and you can’t share their perspective, because you know it already, and you can’t put yourself in the position of un-knowing it, so it biases how you communicate. You knew where you were headed in that sentence, but I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t activate a schema until I knew what it was about, so I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic cognitive load of what you were saying.”

“Okay,” says my husband. (Not “What?” or “It was just a sentence,” or “Do you have to bring your work home with you?” Reader, this is why I married him.)

There is a pause.

“I think,” he says, “I think I tend to do that a lot, because I like making people laugh, and the punchline always has to go at the end.”

He considers it for a moment. “The benefits of understanding new technologies cannot be overestimated.”

“Perfect.” And we go about our day.

There was a point to this story, beyond confirming your suspicions that my husband and I are perhaps not the sort of people you want at your dinner party. The point is simply this:

Give your audience some context from the outset, or you will lose them immediately. This applies in general, but especially if the information you want to convey is complex or abstract.

And never underestimate the curse of knowledge.

* My favourite bit of the video is the guy at around 1:19 who says he uses Firefox “… because my friend came over to my house and erased all my other browsers and installed it and said ‘you’re using this now.'”

[Edit: My husband wasn’t entirely satisfied with how I had represented his argument, so I’ve reworded that section since this was first posted.]

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Why cartography is such a good communication tool

Maps are a brilliant way of communicating information.

For me, maps work on two levels. The first is that they provide a visual representation of a landmass — or figurative landmass, like the organisation of a companythe brain, or the Dewey Decimal System — some structure with which we are largely unfamiliar and need to be better acquainted. The world gets smaller when you can map it and contain it within a single image: by delineating the boundaries, you are effectively constraining what lies in the Here Be Dragons quadrant of known unknowns. Having a map of the terrain is useful for developing confidence: just as you wouldn’t tackle a mountain without having checked out the map first, students find it reassuring when they know what you are going to cover in a lecture, even if they don’t yet have a handle on the details.

The second reason maps are useful is to provide a familiar structure for new information. The most obvious recent example of this is Mark Newman’s fantastic 2008 electoral maps of the US, in which this



US electoral map.jpg

becomes this


US electoral map_distorted.jpg


becomes this


US electoral map_really-distorted.jpg


though by that point it almost starts looking like something out of Babylon 5.

Because — it is assumed — we are sufficiently familiar with the underlying structure, we are free to explore the new data: how did a given state, county or timezone vote? What could potentially be a really complex information set if just dumped on us wholesale (for example, in the form of statistics) now becomes easily graspable, because it’s framed by a known structure.

We could do this more in teaching: provide an early, basic road-map to students about the borders of the area under discussion, and progressively revisit and colour in the missing pieces. This is not always how we do things: a popular pedagogic M.O.  seems to be to introduce Topic A and then fill in all the details before moving on to Topic B, etc. — but what we could do is show a map of Topics A through H first, and then revisit each topic once students have understood where the edges of the map are.

Good teaching practice means being more explicit about maps.

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