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How we manage the demands on us has been a pre-occupation since the day I came to the realisation that a lot of what runs through my own mind can be explained in terms of what psychologists call the management of ‘cognitive load’ or ‘mental workload’. We all, to some extent, ‘manage’ what we think about, but we rarely reflect on exactly how we do it.
Sometimes there are so many things that need to be thought about (and acted upon) that it is overwhelming, and some management of attention is needed, just to get through the day and maintain performance. If you need convincing that workload can affect performance then consider the research on distractions when driving. (A more comprehensive analysis on ‘the distracted mind’ can be found at the end of this posting).
YouTube Video, The distracted mind, TEDPartners, December 2013, 1:39 minutes
At other times you find yourself twiddling your thumbs, as if waiting for something to happen, or a thought to occur that will trigger action. We sometimes cease to be in the grip of circumstances and our minds can run free.
If you keep asking the question ‘why?’ about anything that you do, you eventually arrive at a small number of answers. If we leave aside metaphysical answers like ‘because it is the will of God’ for the moment, these are generally ‘to keep safe’ or ‘to be efficient’. On the way to these fundamental, and intimately related to them, is ‘to optimize cognitive load’. Not to do so, compromises both safety and efficiency.
To be overwhelmed with the need to act and, therefore, the thinking this necessitates in the evaluation of choices that are the precursors of action, leads to anxiety and anxiety interferes with the capacity to make good choices. To be under-whelmed leads to boredom and lethargy, a lack of caring about choice and the tendency to procrastinate.
It seems that to perform well we need an optimal level of arousal or stimulation.
Youtube Video, Performance and Arousal – Part 1of 3: Inverted U Hypothesis, HumberEDU, January 2015, 5:05 minutes
In the longer term, to be ‘psychologically healthy’ we need optimal levels of arousal ‘on average’ over a period of time.
Being constantly overwhelmed leads from stress, to anxiety and onwards to depression. It can even lead to an early death.
TED Video, The science of cells that never get old’ – Elizabeth Blackburn, TED, April 2017, 18:46 minutes
Being constantly underwhelmed also leads to depression via a different route. How much load we can take depends on our resources – both cognitive and otherwise. We can draw on reserves of energy and a stock of strategies, such as prioritizing, for managing mental workload. If the demands on us are too great and we have some external resources, like somebody else that can provide advice or direction, or the money to pay for it, then we can use those to lessen the load. Whenever we draw on our own capacities and resources we can both enhance and deplete them. Like exercising a muscle, regular and moderate use can strengthen but prolonged and heavy use will tire or deplete them. When we draw on external resources, like money or favours, their use tends to deplete them.
Measurement of Load
So how can we measure the amount of load a person is carrying. This is going to be tricky as some people have more resource and capacity (both internal and external) than others, so observing their activity may not be a very accurate measure of load. If you are very practiced or skilled at something it is much easier to do than if you are learning it for the first time. Also, some people are simply less bothered about whether they achieve what they have to do (or want to do) than others. Even the same person can ‘re-calibrate’, so for example, if pressure of work is causing stress, they can re-assess how much it matters that they get the job done. Some capacities replenish with rest, so something may be easy at one time but harder, say at the end of a long day.
In fact, there are so many factors, some interacting, that any measure, say of stress, through looking at the chemicals in the blood or the amount of sweating on the skin is difficult to attribute to a particular cause.
The capacity of our thinking processes is limited. We can really only focus on one difficult task at once. We even stop doing whatever we were doing (even an automatic task like walking) when formulating the response to a difficult question.
BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo, Series 1 Episode 1, First Broadcast about 2014, 28 minutes
We can use our thinking capacity to further our intentions but we so often get caught up in the distractions of everyday life that none is left for addressing the important issues.
The Personal Agenda
Another way of looking at it is to consider it from the point of view of each person’s agenda and how they deal with it. This is as if you ask a person to write down a ‘to do’ list which has everything they could think of on it. We all do this from time to time, especially when there is too much going on in our heads and we need to set everything out and see what is important.
I will construct such a list for myself now:
- Continue with what I am writing
- Get ready for my friend who is coming for coffee
- Figure out how to pay my bills this month
- Check with my son that he has chosen his GCSE options
- Tell my other friends what time I will meet them tonight
- Check that everything is OK with my house at home (as I am away at the moment)
Each of these agenda items is a demand on my attention. It is as if each intention competes with the others to get my focus. They each shout their demands, and whichever is shouting loudest at the time, wins. Maybe not for long. If I realise that I can put something off until later, it can quickly be dismissed and slip back down the agenda.
But the above list is a particular type that is just concerned with a few short-term goals – it’s the things that are on my mind today. I could add:
- Progress my project to landscape the garden
- Think through how to handle a difficult relationship
Or some even longer term, more aspirational and less defined goals
- Work out how I will help starving children in Africa
- Maintain and enhance my wellbeing
The extended agenda still misses out a whole host of things that ‘go without saying’ such as looking after my children, activities that are defined during the course of going to work, making sure I eat and sleep regularly, and all tasks that are performed on ‘autopilot’ such as changing gear when driving. It also misses out things that I would do ‘if the opportunity arose’ but which I do not explicitly set out to do.
What characterizes the items that form the agenda? They are all intentions of one sort or another but they can be classified in various ways. Many concern obligations – either to family, friends, employers or society more generally. Some are entirely self-motivated. Some have significant consequences if they are not acted upon, especially the obligations, whereas others matter less. Some need immediate attention while others are not so time critical. Some are easy to implement while others require some considerable training, preparation or the sustained execution of a detailed plan. Some are one-offs while others are recurring, either regularly or in response to circumstances. This variation tends to mask the common characteristic that they are all drivers of thought and behaviour.
Intentions bridge between and include both motives and goals. Generally we can think of motives as the inputs and goals as the outputs (although either can be either). Both the motives and the goals of an intention can be vague. In fact, an intention can exist without you knowing either why or what it is to achieve. You can copy somebody else’s intention in ignorance of motive and goal. In the sense of intention as only a pre-disposition to act, you need not be aware of an intention. Often you don’t know how you will act until the occasion demands.
Given that there are perhaps hundreds or even thousands of intentions large or small, all subsisting in the same individual, what determines what a person does at any particular point in time. It all depends on priority and circumstance. Priority will push items to the top of the list and circumstance often determines when and how they drive thought and behaviour.
Priority itself is not a simple idea. There are many factors affecting priority including emotion, certainty of outcome and timing. These factors tend to interact. I may feel strongly that I must help starving children in Africa and although I know that every moment I delay may mean a life lost, I cannot be certain that my actions will make a difference or that I may think of a more effective plan at a later time. When I have just seen a programme on TV about Africa I may be highly motivated, but a day later, I may have become distracted by the need to deal with what now appear to be more urgent issues where I can be more certain of the outcome.
Priority and Emotion
It is as if my emotional reaction to the current content of my experience is constantly jiggling the priorities on my agenda of intentions. As the time approaches for my friend to arrive I start to feel increasingly uncomfortable that I have not cleared up. Events may occur that ‘grab’ my attention and shoot priorities to the top of the agenda. If I am surprised by something I turn my attention to it. Similarly, if I feel threatened. Whereas, when I am relaxed my mind can wander to matters inside my head – perhaps my personal agenda. If I am depressed my overall capacity to attend to and progress intentions is reduced.
Emotions steer our attention. They determine priority. Attention is focused on the highest priority item. Emotion, priority, and attentions are intimately related. Changing emotions continuously wash across intentions, reordering their priority. They modulate the priorities of the intentions of the now.
Emotion provides the motive force that drives attention to whatever it is that you are attending to. If you are working out something complicated in your head, it is the emotion associated with wanting to know the answer that provides the motive force to turn the cogs. This applies even when the intention is to think through something rationally. When in the flow of rational thought (say in doing a mental arithmetic problem) it is emotion that motivates it.
There is a host of literature on emotional memory (i.e. how emotions, especially traumatic ones, are laid down in memory). There is also a large literature on how memories may be re-constructed, often inaccurately, rather than retrieved. The following illustrates both emotional memory of traumatic events and the frequent inaccuracies of re-construction:
TED Video, Emotional Memory: Shawn Hayes at TEDxSacramento 2012, TEDx Talks, March 2013, 8:10 minutes
It is well established that the context in which a memory is laid down effects the circumstances in which the memory is retried. For example, being in a particular place, or experiencing a particular smell or taste may trigger the retrieval of memories specific to the place and smell. The context supplies the cue or key to ’unlocking’ the memory. However, there is comparatively little literature on how emotions trigger memories although there has been research on ‘mood-dependent memory’ (MDM) e.g.
Eric Eich, Dawn Macaulay, and Lee Ryan (1994), Mood Dependent Memory for Events of the Personal Past, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1994, Vol. 123, No. 2, 201-215
It seems plausible that emotions act as keys or triggers that prime particular memories, thoughts and intentions. In fact, the research indicates that mood dependent memory is more salient in relation to internal phenomena (e.g. thoughts) than external ones (such as place). Sadness steers my attention to sad things and the intentions I associate with the object(s) of my sadness. Indifference will steer my attention away from whatever I am indifferent about and release attention for something more emotionally charged. Love and hate might equally steer attention to its objects. Injustice will steer attention to ascertaining blame. The task of identifying who or what to blame can be as much an intention as any other.
Priority and Time – The Significance of Now
Intentions formulated and executable in ‘the now’, assume greater priority than those formulated in the past, or those that may only have consequences in the future.
The now is of special significance because that is where attention is focused. Past intentions slip down the list like old messages in an email inbox. You focus on the latest delivery – the now.
The special significance of ‘the now’ is increasingly recognised, not just as a fact of life but as something to become increasingly conscious of and savoured.
Youtube Video, The Enjoyment of Being with Eckhart Tolle author of THE POWER OF NOW, New World Library, July 2013, 4:35 minutes
Indeed the whole movement of mindfulness, with its focus on ‘the now’ and conscious experience, has grown up as approach to the management of stress and the development of mental strategies.
Youtube Video, The Science of Mindfulness, Professor Mark Williams, OxfordMindfulness, December 2011, 3:34 minutes
Priority and Time in Agenda Management
If I am angry now then my propensity will be high to act on that anger now if I am able to. Tomorrow I will have cooled off and other intentions will have assumed priority. Tomorrow I may not have ready access to the object of my anger. On the other hand, if tomorrow an opportunity arises by chance (without me having created it), then perhaps I will seize it and act on the anger then. As in crime, we are driven by the motive, the means and the opportunity.
Many intentions recur – the intentions to eat, drink, sleep, and seek social interaction all have a cyclical pattern and act to maintain a steady state or a state that falls within certain boundaries (homeostasis). It may be that you need to revive an old intention whether or not it is cyclically recurring. Revival of an intention pushes it back up the list (towards the now) and when some homeostatic system (like hunger and eating) get out of balance a recurring intention is pushed back up the list.
Intentions that impact the near future also take priority over intentions that affect the far future. So, it is easier to make a cup of tea than sit down and write your will (except when death is in the near future). We exponentially discount the future. 1 minute, 1 hour and 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 season and 1 year are equally far apart. What happens in the next minute is as important as what will happen in the next year.
However, from the point of view of establishing the principles of a control mechanism that determines our actions at any point there are other complications and considerations. Often our intentions are incompatible or compete with each other. I cannot vent my anger and fulfil an intention not to hurt anybody. I cannot eat and stay thin. I cannot both go to work tomorrow and stay home to look after my sick child. Therefore, some intentions inhibit others leading to a further jiggling of the priorities.
Prioritising what is Easy
A major determinant of what we actually do is what is easiest to do. So actions that are well learned or matters of habit get done without a second thought but intentions that are complicated or difficult to achieve are constantly pushed down the stack, however important they are. Easy actions consume less resource. If they are sufficiently difficult and also sufficiently important we become pre-occupied by thinking about them but are unable to act.
Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ sets out much of the experimental evidence that shows how in thought we tend towards the easy options.
Youtube Video, Cognitive ease, confirmation bias, endownment effect – Thinking, Fast and Slow (Part 2), Fight Mediocrity, June 2015, 5:50 minutes
How often do we get up in the morning with the firm resolve to do a particular thing and then become distracted during the day by what seem to be more immediate demands or attractive alternatives? It is as if our intentions are being constantly pushed around by circumstances and our reactions to them and all that gets done are the easy things – where by chance the motive, the means, and the opportunity all fortuitously concur in time.
Staying on task is difficult. It requires a single-minded focus of attention and a resistance to distraction. It is sometimes said that ‘focus’ is what differentiates successful people from others, and while that may be true in the achievement of a particular goal, it is at the expense of paying attention to other competing intentions.
Implications for The Human Operating System
The above account demonstrates how as people we interleave multiple tasks in real time, partly in response to what is going on around us and partly in response to our internal agenda items. We do this with limited resources, depleting and restoring capacities as we go. What differentiates us from computers is the way in which priorities are continuously and globally changing such that attention is re-directed in real time to high priority items (such as threats and the unexpected). Part of this is in response to our ability to retrieve relevant memories cued by the external world and our internal states, reflect on (and inhibit) our own thinking and thinking processes and to run through and evaluate mental simulations of possible futures.
- In order to perform effectively we need to manage the demands on us
- Having too much, or too little, to do and think about can lead to stress in the short term and depression, if it goes on for too long.
- We have limited resources and capacities which can become depleted but that can also be restored (e.g. with rest)
- Measuring the amount of load a person is under is not simple as people have different resources, abilities and capacities
- Whether or not we write it down or say it, we all have an implicit list of intentions
- We prioritise the items on this list in a variety of ways
- Circumstances, our emotional reactions and timing are all crucial factors in determining priority
- We also tend to prioritise things that are easy to do (i.e. do not use up effort, time or other resources)
- Being able to manage priorities and interleaving our intentions in response to circumstances and opportunity, is a key aspect of the human operating system
This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’ introduces how we deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives
Next Up: ‘Policy Regulates Behaviour’ shows that not all intentions are equal. Some intentions regulate others, in both the individual and society.
Youtube Vide, The Distracted Mind, UCI Open, April 2013, 1:12:37 hours
The Fragmentation of Experience
I was sitting quietly yesterday, just letting my mind run free as I frequently do, and was distracted by a single unusual dinging sound. I checked my phone, I checked my laptop, I checked my desktop computer and finally came to my iPad to discover that it was the game 2048 calling me back to play again.
Can playing 2048 really be so important as to distract me from contemplating whether or not ‘the nature of consciousness’ or ‘the impact of the observer on the observed’, necessarily lead to the conclusion that there must be a God? This juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous seems to be an all too frequent occurrence. In a single hour I can receive a stream of SMS text messages, communications from Whatsapp, Viber, Timbr, Tumblr, reminders and other notifications, emails, phone calls, Skype calls, Facebook messages, software updates, and a knock on the door.
YouTube Video, Why do we get so easily distracted by technology?, Documentary Channel, November 2014, 3:31 Minutes
Sometimes I am shoving so many intentions to respond on the mental stack that the coherence of this fragmentary existence feels that it could, at any point, come crashing to the floor like a waiter trying to clear just one too many dishes. My guess is that from time to time I do lose it – I forget to get back to somebody important, I miss an appointment, or I slip up in the logic of my thoughts about when or whether ‘the singularity’ might occur.
This can be life in 2015 if you are the least bit busy or electronically connected to the world. On the other hand, if you do not get back to people, if you do not initiate, the pace of incoming social communications can rapidly dwindle to nothing. You have to keep the plates spinning on their sticks. Even so, you can rely on the fact that the work demands will not go away, pressures of family life do not abate, and the bills keep coming. I once heard ‘if you think that nobody cares about you, then try missing a couple of car payments’.
YouTube Video, Avoiding Distraction, Jack Wright, June 2015, 6:44 minutes
Related to distraction is disruption. When things happen that are beyond our control, we tend not to react very well. We don’t like uncertainty. But there can be benefits.
BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo: Disruption, July 2016, 27:22 minutes
Paying attention to attention
Daniel Goldman, of emotional intelligence fame, makes the connection between being able to control attention and being able to perform at a high level. Being able to control what you attend to, he maintains, is critical to high level of performance, in part because it provides control over the emotional reactions evoked by the constant stream of circumstances and distractions of everyday life. Fortunately, it seems, that if you are aware of this you can use a variety of techniques to ‘strengthen the muscle’ of emotional control. The concepts of both ‘mindfulness’ and ‘flow’ relate to this. Many of these ideas are echoed later in these blog postings, especially in relation to the prioritisation of intentions and what is known as ‘executive function’.
YouTube Video, Daniel Goleman on Focus: The Secret to High Performance and Fulfilment, iqsquared, November 2013, 1:18:17 hours
Operating System – Human
While the above account may seem particular to life in the first world in the 21st century, this is just a superficial view. Deep down it is about the human condition anywhere and anytime. It is about how we interact with our environment, how we feel about it, how we prioritise, how we interleave our own goals with obligations and demands made on us, how we make sense of what’s going on and how we reflect on our own thoughts about that.
Theories in psychology are bitty. They tend to confine themselves to small aspects or singular perspectives on the human condition. So they might look at, say, attachment, memory, leadership, personality or visual illusions as if they had ‘not that much to do with each other’. In physics we work towards the Grand Unified Theory but in psychology there have been few attempts, although there are exceptions including:
- Unified Theories of Cognition
- A Unified Theory of Psychology by Gregg Henriques
YouTube Video, Theories in Psychology: A Refresher for AP Psych, Charles Schallhorn, May 2013, 8:09 minutes
Only rarely do theories look at the human being as a whole, and in real time, with all the complexity and dynamics that this implies. You can argue that this is because people are so complex that it is impossible to say anything meaningful unless you look at the detail of some particular aspect.
However, in the following account I am trying to do exactly this. I start with the perspective of the person as an operating (or control) system and, drawing on the many and various observations that have been made about the human condition, try to describe what sort of mechanisms might be at play, that both bound and give rise to, the complexity of being human. Rather than focus on particular findings, I am looking for the generalities of the architecture whereby these particular phenomena are emergent from the underlying ‘mechanism’.
This somewhat cybernetic approach considers the human condition as a resource limited and reflective control system embedded in its circumstances and operating at the level of ‘mind’ in order to manage various needs.
This is hardly the first time I have thought or written about these things. I have been studying psychology for several decades, working in artificial intelligence for 10 years, in mental health for 3 years, and been writing the blog www.wellbeingandcontrol.com for a year. However, it is probably the first time that I have tried to capture the human condition in terms of a somewhat short-term, resource constrained, pragmatic but error-prone, multi-threaded operating system that stumbles about trying to out-guess an uncertain world, to suffice (rather than optimise) in meeting its many and varied, changing needs.
This is not intended to be a truly comprehensive and unifying theory. It will not lead to precise prediction and measurement demanded by science. However, it does try to capture some of the essence of what it is to be human – to ‘duck and dive’ within one’s circumstance, and manage with limited, uncertain knowledge and resources; to seek pattern and manufacture meaning from whatever is presented; to feel and evaluate, prioritise and direct attention; to create, innovate, and hypothesise; to be vigilant to threat; to assume, dream, speculate, model and envision; to aspire to climb a hierarchy of needs; and to fail, re-interpret, re-group and recover to survive another day.
It is the cut and thrust of the real-time operation of one complex control system – the self (itself made up of multiple competing and co-operating components) embedded within other complex systems comprising the environment, that is the essence of what I am trying to capture and label ‘the human operating system’.
Have I missed something?
So, like I always do, and like everybody else increasingly does, I typed ‘human operating system’ into Google in the full expectation that I would find the usual wealth of literature on the subject. I have made one consistent observation over the years, and that is, whatever you think of, somebody else has always thought about it before and indeed there is usually not only hundreds of books and articles on the subject but often a whole industry exploiting it. So, really I was expecting to find, in the psychology or cybernetics literature at least, some comprehensive and well worked out theories describing the human condition in terms of an operating system. Well, although the term has been used many times, so far I have failed to find exactly what I am looking for, and I find this surprising. Why?
Well, the reason is that it is such an obvious thing to do. There are no end of analogies used to help throw light on the human condition.
YouTube Video, Analogy-Human Brain Like a Cow’s Stomach, Michael Harris, December 2011, 1:49 minutes
The brain is compared to the library or the telephone switchboard, memory (usually inaccurately) as forms of ‘recording’, and the computer is routinely used as an analogy for describing people – the brain being the hardware and the mind being thought of as the software. But these parallels are pathetic simplifications that go nowhere near touching on the complexity of either computers or people.
Just off the top of my head, albeit that I have studied both psychology and computers for many years, I can see so many deeper parallels between the sophisticated multi-threaded operating systems used in modern computing and what we know about human cognition in terms of ‘limited capacity central processing’, ‘memory storage and retrieval’, ‘executive function’ and so on.
Without going too deeply into it, a computer operating system is designed to stand between the human user interacting with particular applications (internet browsers, word-processing etc.) and the computer hardware. It looks after managing memory, processes and devices (screens, printers etc.) so that neither the user nor the application have to be concerned with all the detail. In much the same way, the human operating system stands between the person and their environment or circumstances looking after all the details of retrieving memories, switching between tasks and managing inputs (hearing, vision, touch) and outputs (actions / behaviours).
The claim being made in this blog is that the human condition (and the mind) is best explained in terms of the human operating system as analogous to the computer operating system, and that the characteristics and limitations of being human can be made more readily understandable by teasing apart the nature of this operating system. Furthermore, we may be able to account more precisely and predictably for differences between people by looking at both differences in the nature of the operating system as well as differences in the content of the data the operating system works with (i.e. what has been learned and stored in memory as well as inputs from the surrounding environment and culture).
Try as I might I have not been able to find a good video to illustrate this, but here is a video about some of the basic principles of computer operating systems to be going on with:
YouTube Video, Programming Interview: Introduction to Operating System (OS definition) (part 1), saurabhschool, May 2014, 11:34 minutes
I am claiming that this approach might be more illuminating as an explanation of the human condition and of differences between people than many other psychological approaches because it gets at some of the underlying mechanisms of cognition and not just the ‘symptoms’. For example, tests of intelligence or personality measure the ‘outputs’ of the human condition but don’t really explain how they come about. However, if I told you that one person appears to be more ‘successful’ than another because they tend to use a particular type of priority scheduling algorithm or that a person is more prone to error in their judgement of people because they systematically retrieve a particular type of memory, then I am going much further in explaining, predicting (and where necessary remedying) the processes that bring about the behaviours. (Interestingly, just in the area of computer process scheduling there are several possible algorithms types such as ‘first come first served’, ‘non-pre-emptive shortest job first’, ‘pre-emptive shortest job first’, ’round-robin’ and ‘priority-scheduling’ – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtuQpQwlmYM ).
Levels of Description
Although, I am primarily interested in the operating system that we call ‘the mind’, as indicated elsewhere in these blogs, much the same mechanisms are operating at different levels of description. For example, here is a description of an operating system at the biochemical level:
TED Video, The operating system of life – George Zaidan and Charles Morton, TEDEd, November 2013, 4:00 minutes
There is something of a gulf between levels of description in terms of ‘mind’ and those concerned with the physical substance of the brain and body. The gulf is given rise to much philosophical debate (the mind/body problem – see: Philosophy Bites, Tim Crane on Mind and Body) and now, especially with the advent of many forms of brain scanning and monitoring (see: Representations of Reality Enable Control – Part 2), is becoming the subject of much empirical investigation. It is this gulf where I choose to focus my level of description and why I think the notion of ‘operating system’ might be a powerful language in which to express it. The operating system bridges between the ‘software’ and the ‘hardware’ in both computer and in human.
- Life these days is increasingly subject to distractions from technology
- How we prioritise our thoughts and actions is fundamental to the way people operate. It captures the essence of the human condition.
- Although there have been many analogies between the human brain and technology, these are usually oversimplistic and capture nothing of the complexities of being human
- However, computer operating systems are highly complex in the way that they scheduled tasks and manage resources.
- Also operating systems are positioned between the software and the hardware. In people, the interface between mind and body is really where all the action is and is still largely unexplained.
This blog goes on to use the notion of the human operating system as a language to describe much of the complexity of the human condition.
This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 1 – The Fragmentation of Experience’ introduces the idea of the human operating system to describe the interface between mind and body
Next Up: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’. How do we manage to deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives