Episode 9 – Cognitive load, ego depletion & the need for meditation | Cognitive Biases #2 (12 min)

You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.

Zen proverb

Another episode in our series of episodes about human cognitive biases.

In this one, I talk about Cognitive load, which is an overarching phenomenon that affects our moment-to-moment state of being and thus, affects our ability to make decisions, to understand and process information – in short, it affects how we think. And hence, being aware of it is important.

I also briefly touch upon the need for meditation, and why it is something that everyone should incorporate in their everyday lives.

This episode is as everyday-life as it gets when it comes to pragmatic philosophy, wisdom and understanding. Tune right in. I’ll see you in the playground.

stress, cognitive load, ego depletion and the need for meditation

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The Unlearning Playground Podcast, a popular philosophy and spirituality podcast by Chetan Narang, on Apple Podcasts

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In the previous episode, we talked about the fact that we see the world as we are, not as the world is. We discussed the three levels at which this is true – at the level of our moment-to-moment state of being, at the level of our biological conditioning and at the level of our cultural, social or rather psychological conditioning. If you haven’t checked out that episode yet, I would highly recommend you to. And you can do that even after this episode. It is a good introduction as to why being aware of all this is a big part of growing up and taking up the role of being a mature adult, which in turn is a big part of what we talk about here in this podcast.

Now in one manner of speaking, our decision making capabilities and our capabilities to understand something or process something depend on a whole bunch of factors, and we’re not always our best selves when it comes to any given moment. In this episode, we’ll be discussing one such overarching phenomena which impacts a lot of our thinking capabilities at any given moment – cognitive load.

Cognitive load is quite easy to understand actually. In purely layman terms, it is a measure of how much you have on your mind at any given moment. And it shouldn’t be very tough to understand that this affects the quality of your state of being at that moment. Someone who is dealing with a whole bunch of things, has a wide array of thoughts running through his or her mind at any given moment, is obviously under a lot of load in one sense. 

A few things happen in such a state of mind which, it can only benefit us adults, to be aware of.

Our ability to make good choices is not at its best under high cognitive load, especially about things not already in our mind. If you’re driving on a busy road, you’re under a lot of cognitive load. The busier the traffic the more the load. And the more the load, the more susceptible you are to being irrational if an argument now starts with your partner in the seat next to you. It might distract you from driving properly too. Now, it helps the overall situation if both you as well as your partner become aware of this, in that very moment, and take whatever action seems rational then – delaying the argument would be a good starting point to be honest. 

This is applicable in general to so many avenues in our life, much more than we would want to acknowledge. Whenever we have too much going on in our heads, we are more likely to not be our best selves, to not take criticism well, to not accept where we are wrong, to not consider that someone else with an opposing viewpoint might have something right in his or her narrative. In short, we are more likely to be everything we ourselves don’t like others around us being.

So, in moments of high load, it helps to become aware of your own state of mind and understand that your decisions and choices may be hampered. Taking a deep breath, and delaying decision making unless you feel still and grounded again, should be your plan of action in such a scenario.

Also, it helps us to understand that a lot of times, we might encounter a situation in which another person we’re dealing with, is under high cognitive load, and hence they are not at their best self. And it helps the overall situation at such times to, again, to slow it down and delay decision making until the other person feels still and grounded again. That is taking action from a place of compassion and love born out of understanding.

Now, there is another phenomenon I want you to consider. Being in a state of high cognitive load for a long period of time, or what the average modern human calls Wednesday afternoon these days! 

Jokes apart, put your imaginative horses to work, and picture for a minute that you’ve been working all day long in your office – meetings, discussions, fire-fightings, handling a resignation, and also a new joinee, avoiding a conflict with your manager as well as your subordinate, project work – all of this on the same day, in a span of a few “working” hours. Now, what would be your state of mind at the end of such a day? You’d be depleted, to say the least. You’d be exhausted. And what do you imagine your quality of decision making would be at such times? To put it lightly, let’s just say you would not take your best decisions.

This state of mind is what I understand to be ego depletion. Now that term is a bit controversial in the psychological literature these days, but we’re not using it to mean anything other than the state of feeling mentally depleted or tired. And like everything else we discuss here, that happens with me, happens with you, happens with those public figures we love or love to hate, happens with our managers, happens with our subordinates, happens with our partners, happens with human beings.

It just helps us to be aware of ourselves, our own state of mind, in the moment when this is happening. And also, helps us to be aware when we see another person not being their best self. And in both these scenarios, it helps to take a deep breath and delay making decisions and drawing conclusions, to the extent possible of course, until you feel still and grounded again.

You know, there is this famous saying in Hindi, “Khaali dimaag shaitan ka ghar hota hai”. Loosely translated to English, it means that an empty mind is the devil’s home.

When I started meditating and delving into my own psyche a good few years ago, I remember that one of the first few startling realisations was that this quote is absolute garbage! Anyone who has ever experienced the state of having an empty mind knows what I am talking about, knows that it is an extremely calming, peaceful experience. If anything, it is the home of the divine not the devil!

The problem, of course, is that we never really get to empty our minds in our everyday lives these days. And if a mind full of rotten, incomplete thoughts, which is our default state, suddenly has a lot of time at its hands, there definitely is a recipe the devil would enjoy. So what do we do under the disguise of practicality? We double down our efforts to get busy with whatever it is our minds think is worth it. While what would have been more practical, my dear human, would have been doubling down the effort to try and really empty your mind. Try, and ponder on the realisations that follow. Maybe we could even do a podcast episode together if you really tried it.

Meditation is one practice that everyone should incorporate in their everyday lives. But we’re all so busy these days with whatever swell things we have set out to achieve, that almost everyone says that they simply do not have the time. And that always reminds me of an age-old Zen proverb – “If you’re so busy that you cannot meditate for twenty minutes a day, you should meditate for an hour a day.” That is just lovely isn’t it? You need it much more than the free person does, my fellow busy human being!

To break it down for you, I talk about meditation in terms of the act of observing the flow of one’s own thoughts. For starters, you should try to allocate some time in the day, when you sit down, take some deep breaths, and do that – just observe your own thoughts. That’s it. That’s the entire activity. 

And then keep consuming good, potent content to improve the quality of thoughts your mind ponders about. In our information age, it is your own responsibility to filter out all the noise you receive otherwise by default. So, read more books, listen to better podcasts, follow better youtube channels, declutter all the junk from your Instagram feeds, etc. You know the drill.

And of course, DM me on Instagram if you feel like having a word about any of it. I’m always open to honest and engaging conversations, like many of you have already found out.

Well, I guess that’s it for this episode for now. I hope this episode found you in a state of relatively lower cognitive load to enable better understanding.

If not, I hope you find it in you to listen to it again and meditate on it.

Until next time, peace out.