Cognitive Load and Writing

Hiker looking out over a lake and mountains.Photo by Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash

Did you know that using Nordic Walking Poles will help you to avoid getting lost? That’s right. Carrying two pieces of inert metal, with no magical AI therein, will enhance your ability to navigate. Let’s take a look at why that is the case, and at how this effect might be relevant to your writing.

Of course, saying ‘did you know’ implies thatthis thing about walking poles is known. To be honest, that’s not strictly true. But basic theory from neuropsychology tells us that it is thoroughly plausible. I for one would bet a lot on it turning out to be true if tested empirically. And it’s the theory that matters here because that is what is of relevance to our writing.

The effort to not fall over

Let’s start by doing nothing. Or rather, by thinking about ‘doing nothing’. And let’s note at the very outset that this is an impossibility for a living being, in any literal sense. Take the case of standing upright. It might feel like you’re not doing anything much, but there’s a whole lot of stuff going on behind the scenes. You see we are built in a rather counterintuitive way¹, with the heaviest bit of our body (the head) at the top. Like an upside-down pendulum. So when we are ‘just standing there’ if we do not actively adjust our balance more than once per second we fall over. A non-disabled, healthy individual will not notice that they are having to do this. And they can’t really stop themselves doing it either. But the adjusting is going on. All the time.

This creates a load. Many of us don’t notice this load until we are older (though some of us do — more on this below). But notice it or not, it’s there all the same. And it runs alongside all the things we are doing when we are taking in information from our senses, talking with someone, planning our next action, and so forth. All of these things create their own load.

Needless to say, people do not have limitless cognitive resources, so there are times when the various parallel loads that are impacting us add up and reach some sort of critical threshold². It’s at that point that you become consciously aware of some of the things you are doing, and you find yourself having to concentrate more on one of those things. Picture yourself strolling down the road with a friend. You are perfectly easily walking together and talking. You may even be chewing gum. An argument develops. Your walking continues. But the argument becomes heated, your voices raise, and you become increasingly angry with each other. What happens next?

The answer is that you stop walking and continue the argument, stationary. You do this because the emotional and cognitive load of the ‘full and frank discussion’ is now hogging your resources and you cannot do the ‘simple’ activity of walking at the same time.

Balance

For non-disabled children and adults, it takes a lot to interfere with the well-practised, automated function of walking. Things change, however, as we grow older. Walking becomes increasingly demanding, partly because balancing starts to place a heavier load on our cognitive system. It used to be that we could get from the kitchen to the sofa with a cup of tea and not (usually) spill any. But at a certain point in our lifespan doing the ‘walking’ and the ‘balancing a cup on a saucer’ thing at the same time is too high a load, and we become less likely to manage the two things successfully together.

When I am watching a very elderly person carrying a mug to their chair, I am not usually worried about them spilling their drink (unless it’s very hot, of course). The big danger is that they will lose their balance and trip or fall³. What they often need, of course, is some sort of walking aid. This walking aid helps in many ways, not least of which is by lessening the load associated with balancing. And that’s what brings us onto Nordic Walking Poles. And from there it’s but a short trek into the domain of writing. So bear with me.

Expert hikers don’t need to concentrate that much on the placement of their next footstep. But they have to concentrate on it a bit. And if the terrain is a little complex, then they have to concentrate on that placement just a little bit more. This concentration loads on their cognitive system. It may not be a big, or intrusive load. But a load it is. And at certain points, it is likely to compete with the demands of parallel processes such as navigation. Employ a couple of sticks to secure each step with just a fraction less concentration, and the hiker has that little bit extra resource available to look at the surrounding environment; to notice the signs showing which path to follow; to avoid getting lost.

The importance of bodies

One of the things we do in psychology is to take a principle of some sort, and reason through how that principle might apply in different settings. And that’s what I’m doing here. I’m not aware of any specific studies that provide direct evidence that Nordic Walking Poles help you not to get lost. But well-established ideas about cognitive load in various bodies of psychology and neurosciences literature suggest that the effect is very likely to occur². So how about we work with these principles and apply them to our writing? Let’s see if we can come up with some rational ideas about what might help us. Ideas that ideally go one step beyond the mind-snappingly obvious.

All of which brings us onto the subject of bodies. We tend to think that everything that is important about writing goes on in the mind — the body being little more than a mechanism by which the ideas of the writer are committed to the page. But the ideas relating to cognitive load that we’ve been reviewing here suggest that we would be wrong to think this.

First, there is the maintenance of posture. If we are sitting (or standing, which is how I work most of the time) in a way that demands resources to maintain stability, then we are likely detracting from the resources that we are able then to allocate to the business of writing, both in terms of the mechanics of typing (for example) and in terms of the capacity to think what it is that we want to type. I would speculate that the achievement of a stable physical base for writing is a much-underrated way of enhancing our writing.

It’s certainly the case that those who struggle more to maintain a steady posture struggle more to communicate. I’m thinking here of people with various forms of developmental disabilities. Those on the autism spectrum, for example⁴. If you have to allocate a relatively large amount of your available resources to sitting still, or to working out where in space different bits of your body are (so-called proprioception, the forgotten ‘sixth sense’), then that will have a relatively large effect on your capacity simultaneously to write (or speak, or learn, or whatever). We often ignore the important role that the body plays in learning and communicating. And we do so at our peril.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice is one of the ways in which we minimise load⁵. Think about a learner driver in a manual, stick shift car. Much of their attention in the early stages of driving is on the whole complex business of changing gear. And they consequently have fewer resources available for doing the most important thing, which is driving safely. But pretty quickly the gear changing becomes ‘proceduralised’ and can be done relatively automatically while allocating most of the available cognitive resources to focusing on other matters (like navigating and avoiding other cars).

So, if you can proceduralise typing, by learning to touch-type, for example, you will have a whole lot more resource available that you can direct to the business of planning what it is that you want to say. It’s kind of obvious that the better you type the easier it is to write, in a mechanical sense. That’s true by definition. But I am arguing one step further than this. I am saying that it’s likely that the better you type, the higher the quality of the output, in terms of things like creativity, or convincingness of argument, and so forth. And that extra step of reasoning is not obvious.

Balance and posture

Needless to say, there are limitless factors that we could cover here. Noise, lighting, emotional state, recent arguments with your partner, ruminations, social media notifications. All these things can impact our writing, and there is a wealth of ‘pro tips’ elsewhere to help you deal with them. What I wanted to do with this piece was to convince you that balance and posture — things that are specifically to do with our bodies — require effort and create load. And although you may not be aware of that load, it’s just possible that it is having a continuous impact on your writing.

So, pay attention to your body. Get balanced. Get stable. Allocate as much cognitive resource as you can to the task at hand. Writing!

Alternatively, try typing with Nordic Walking Poles. Laughter also helps.