The human brain is undoubtedly an amazing thing. It is capable of organising and processing the almost constant streams of sensory data with which it is faced, whilst simultaneously controlling and maintaining the many functions that our body needs to operate and survive. One of the key roles of the brain is sensemaking. It deals with all the data that is inputted through out senses and gives it meaning, structuring it so that we can understand and make sense of our world. Put simply, without this we just couldn’t function and when this ability is impaired, through illness, injury or self-imposed alteration, the consequences can be shattering.
We are clearly, then, heavily dependant on our brain and this processing that it achieves, which psychologists broadly label as cognition. However, despite this dependence there is one thing that psychological research has clearly shown. This is that our brain has a limited capacity to process information, and cognition is not, therefore, without boundaries. Back in 1956 a psychologist named Miller published one of the most cited papers in our discipline. He not only showed that our processing capacity is limited but also quantified this, suggesting that the maximum number of processes we can simultaneously achieve is 7 (+/- 2). This became known as Miller’s Magic Number.
I’m sure that all of us can relate to these limits in our processing. If we have too much to do at once we may feel stressed and anxious. Overload in cognition is not something that leads, generally, to pleasant feelings and we often therefore engage in behavioural changes or other strategies to deal with this. These range from the social (e.g., trying to associate with people who share our view of the world and therefore challenge us less) to the individual (perhaps ignoring tasks or finding ways of dealing with the feelings that come with overload).
Because our brain has these processing limitations it has to make allowances for this. For example, research has shown that we deal with them by being selective in what we process, only attending to small amounts of information when, for example, we make decisions. We are, as the authors of key research in this area suggested, essentially ‘cognitive misers’ (Fiske & Taylor, 1984) the brain using a range of techniques to reduce processing load. These short cuts are known as heuristics. To put this another way we operate, as Zipf (1949) suggested, on a principle of least effort. If we can do something as quickly and easily as possible we generally will because this way it limits processing requirements and just feels easier. This all has huge implications for human behaviour, and indeed criminal action, something that I’ll be exploring in future posts.
So how does this fit with Twitter? Well, you could argue that this form of ‘micro-blogging’ is in fact a type of heuristic. The limits on message lengths that Twitter imposes means we have to communicate as briefly and succinctly as possible. I realise that we may often use tweets to link to more detailed information, but that in itself is also a process of simplification. While we may initially find it tricky to be succinct, I would bet that most Twitter users quickly become used to this process and find it both easy and comfortable. Indeed, Twitter really fits with cognition nicely: small chunks of easily processed and shared information. Just what the brain ordered!