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Book Review of: The Overflowing Brain

Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory

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Review of The Overflowing Brain by Torkel Klingberg, M.D., Ph.D. (Paperback, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

At barely over 150 pages in paperback form, The Overflowing Brain is a bit on the thin side for the academic work that it is. But what's there is (mostly) good. The book contributes to the existing literature on the brain and attention, complementing such previous works (by other authors) as The New Brain (excellent) and The Brain That Changes Itself (also excellent).

The Overflowing Brain isn't a "self help" book on overcoming inattention. If it were, I wouldn't have read it. The market's full of insubstantive self-help books that claim to solve "information overload." They tend to dress up the obvious with psychobabble, and some just go off into lala land. How some of these make the nonfiction list is a wonder. Many have cute names and are written by some consultant who pushes them at a seminar. If you share my "how to do the obvious" fatigue, you can pick up Dr. Klingberg's book and not worry that it will turn your shoes brown.

In The Overflowing Brain, Dr. Klingberg looks at the inability of people to deal with an overload of data. He refers to this situation as "information overload," but information is something useful. If you examine what passes for "information," you'll find that most of it is just useless, distracting data. Another word for that is "noise." Tuning out and turning off the sources of this noise is your first defense. In fact, it's pretty much your only defense. And if you do it right, it's the only defense you need.

Dr. Klingberg glosses over looking at any particular sources of noise, and consequently cannot provide solutions to dealing with them. So, let's look briefly at those for the critics of this book who expect a "solutions" tome instead of what Dr. Klingberg wrote.

Television, for example, is about 98% useless noise. That's why I stopped watching it entirely. The folks who run most of the newspapers have decided to publish disinformation rather than news, so that also is noise. Solution: tune it out. If the ringing cell phone interrupts you, why do you leave the ringer on or even have the phone with you in the first place?

Obviously, we don't need a book telling us how to turn off and tune out (you either do or you don't). And this book doesn't attempt to tell us that. So, what does this book tell us? Essentially, it looks at two aspects of what is commonly referred to as "our ADD society" (not good clinical terminology, and not the way Dr. Klingberg would describe it):

  • The amount of input (erroneously called "information") available to a person today.
  • The actual capacity of the brain to process input.

All of this is based on research, rather than speculation or anecdotes. And, it's put in layman's terms so that ordinary people can understand the main indications arising from the current research. I think this reading will also help people understand such things as:

  • The fallacy of multitasking. In light of the Fannie/Freddie scandal, let's call it "subprime tasking."
  • Why you can choose to be a competent driver, or talk on a cell phone. It's either/or.
  • Why a clean desk is not a sign of a sick mind. Signs saying so are simply wrong.

Flawed conclusions

From all his extensive research, Dr. Klingberg draws some interesting conclusions. But a couple of those are incorrect.

One conclusion is that computer games aren't harmful to the intellect. Per the metrics Dr. Klingberg looked at, that is correct. However, he failed to examine the effects of relying on video as a primary medium (as opposed to print), and that's a problem. This has been thoroughly examined in the literature, and I'm surprised he missed this. He did refute several negative misperceptions about video games, and that's good. But he provides an incomplete and inaccurate picture. There are significant differences in the brains of people who read and people who watch. Whether you consider video reliance to be good or bad depends on whether you value the ability to work in the abstract. More on that, in a bit.

Another conclusion is that humans are getting smarter. He bases this on rising IQ scores. This erroneous conclusion was a minor point in the book, so I'll provide only minor rebuttal. We are, in fact, in the midst of a stupidity epidemic. IQ tests measure only seven areas of intelligence, and there are many more. As a genius IQ holder myself, I have a strong personal interest in this subject and am no stranger to the literature.

You can't extrapolate from a limited test of intelligence that overall intelligence is rising, especially when the meta data overwhelmingly point to an upward trend in stupidity. One explanation for the coincident increase in both stupidity and IQ scores is the dumb are getting dumber and the smart are getting smarter. The many flaws in IQ testing also undermine Dr. Klingberg's conclusion.

What's inside

This book consists of fifteen chapters, a foreword, and backnotes. The backnotes are about 15% the size of the text itself, which indicates the degree of researched behind it.

The first eight chapters look at working memory, brain plasticity, brain bandwidth, and other issues germane to assessing how much data processing capacity the brain has. As noted earlier, the author says "Information" when he means "data." For someone looking for practical applications of this research, the key is to strip out the useless data so your brain processes information. There are techniques for doing that. You can find these techniques described in a variety of sources, such as project management training, time management books, and the Mindconnection Newsletter.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 look at the issue of ADHD and the possibility of expanding the capacity of the brain. It looks at certain thresholds and experiments in which people cross them. Or not.

Chapter 12 tackles the hysteria surrounding computer games, and corrects some of the disinformation spewed repeatedly by the mudstream media. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Klingberg leaves out some key concerns. However, it should be noted that the author correctly makes the case that these games do not inherently make people stupid. In fact, they can have the opposite effect. The risk here is that too much video input causes a rewiring of the brain in a way that diminishes the brain's ability to process in the abstract. You may know abstract processing by another name: thinking. This is the "more" mentioned in the "flawed conclusions" area.

Chapter 13 discusses the Flynn Effect. It's interesting, but here Dr. Klingberg really loses his way. That chapter then segues into Chapter 14, which discusses improving the capacity of the brain. In dealing with today's data overload, however, the answer does not lie what Dr. Klingberg is discussing. It lies in simply cleaning up the input to the brain. In the final chapter he looks at how people may actually be addicted to increasing amounts of input, and how this relates to the concept of "flow" that elite athletes talk about.


But this discussion is misplaced, for any practical purposes. Since Dr. Klingberg makes frequent analogies to computers, here's one to help frame the issue of whether to "upgrade" the brain. In many IT (Information Technology) departments, there's a ban on running a specific vendor's suite of "protection" products (I won't mention the name). These products run enough Windows services that they seriously bog down the computer. Uninstalling this software has the same effect as leapfrogging the processor by a couple of model years. Put another way, eliminating unnecessary loads on the brain will improve its ability to handle the loads it really needs to handle.

And, just to make the point very clear, consider this. You never see Tiger Woods walking around the golf course with an iPod in one ear or a cell phone glued to the other.

Essentially, Dr. Klingberg is looking where the light is better, rather than looking where the actual problem is. But often in research, this is necessary so that the real problem-solving can begin. If Dr. Klingberg were consulting and answering, "How can we make our employees smarter," he would probably say not to bother. He would suggest first removing distractions and then filtering data into information. In fact, this very concept is where businesses are moving already.

There's an entire discipline called "Business Intelligence." IBM, Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle have invested heavily in this over the past few years (we are talking in the billions of dollars). For example, SAP bought Business Objects and IBM bought Cognos. What SAP and IBM bought are reporting systems that distill mountains of data into small amounts of useful information. The industry name for this entire market is business intelligence.

Are brains today really overflowing with information? No. They are overflowing with data. The problem is one of input management, not processing capacity. Many state and local governments have recognized this fact, and thus have made it illegal to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time. Those governments force drivers to manage their mental input, since we have overwhelming evidence now that humans lack the processing capacity to competently drive and yak at the same time. You have to switch back and forth, and driving is a full-time job.

Dr. Klingberg may trying to point to input management as the solution to problems resulting from distraction, simply by exposing just how limited the brain upgrade solution really is. The answer to the stupidity epidemic is an entirely different matter, and not within the scope of this book or this review.

For more good reading on the topic on inattention, I recommend Distracted, by Maggie Jackson.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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