Suppose you had to fill a bathtub and you had two ways to do it. The first is with a thimble. The second is with a bucket. Obviously, you’d choose the bucket—until you realize that the bucket is riddled with holes, and nearly every drop of water runs out as fast as you can fill it.

Suddenly, the thimble looks like a much better choice, right?

Now suppose that bathtub is your brain, and the way you choose to fill it—the way you take in information—determines whether anything stays.

That’s a very simple version of our complex brains, but it helps us picture two important things: our long-term memory and our working memory.

Our long-term memory is the bathtub. It’s the big place where we store stuff. Not just the individual bits and pieces of things we’ve seen or heard or done, but the meaning that those bits and pieces create. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows, our long-term memory turns “scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge.”

So, how do we fill that tub? By way of our working memory, a type of short-term memory. And boy, is it short. Sixty years ago, researchers thought it could hold about seven pieces of information at one time. Newer research shows that it’s more like two or three things—and those vanish as soon as a new piece of input comes along.

Which brings us back to the bucket and thimble.

Our brain becomes a leaky bucket when we’re constantly bombarded with input. We click, link, text, and scan all day, every day. Never mind that clever little thing known as the constant scroll, a feature of social media that keeps our working memory jumping from one thing to the next every few seconds. 

We’re dumping water in our bucket faster than ever but it’s all running out the bottom. Nothing ever gets to the tub.

The thimble, though, gets the job done. It’s slow, that’s true. It can only hold one, maybe two pieces of input at a time. But it fills the tub. It’s how we learn, consolidate new info, create knowledge and meaning. It’s reading a book, or watching a movie or TV show without scanning your phone at the same time.

As Carr says, the constant deluge of the Internet and social media is akin to “many information faucets, all going full blast.” Maybe it’s time to turn them down and fill your thimble slowly.

Photo by Beth MacDonald on Unsplash   

1 Comment

  1. Every good teacher knows that students absorb information in small increments. And, every good teacher knows that he / she needs two or three ways of imparting those small thimble full increments of information so that it sticks in long term memory.

    Lesson: Learn a little bit well and revisit repeatedly and create a long term learned memory.


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