In his introductory first chapter, Torkel Klingberg proposes that, in addition to determining how to learn to be less stressed by decelerating the pace of our lifestyle, we must also accommodate "our thirst for information, stimulation, and mental challenges. It is arguably when we determine our limits and find an optimal balance between cognitive demand and ability that we can not only achieve deep satisfaction but also develop our brain's capacity the most." Klingberg stresses the need to achieve and then maintain what Jonah Lehrer characterizes as "perfect equilibrium" in his recently published How We Decide. First, in Chapter 2, Klingberg examines the mental demands that surround us every day and compete for our attention, "through which the information flood re4aches the brain." (These mental demands comprise what marketers correctly call the "clutter" that they struggle to penetrate with their messages.) At one point, Klingberg cites an experiment that demonstrates "one of the rudimentary mechanisms of attention: the selection of neurons to be stimulated at the expense of others. The phenomenon is called [begin italics] biased competition [end italics]."
Then in Chapter 3, he examines "the really interesting constraints [that] lie in how we control our attention and how we retain the information we absorb." (It is important to keep in mind that if we do not focus our attention on something, such as the explanation of the specific subject Klingberg that he is discussing, we will not remember it.) "How do we remember what it is we concentrate on? The answer is [begin italics] working memory [end italics]." That is our ability to remember information for brief periods of time, usually a matter of seconds. Our long-term memory that retains events in which we have been involved in one way or another or facts about them are "encoded in long-term storage through a chain of biochemical and cellular processes that Klingberg examines. However, during the remainder of his book, he focuses almost entirely on working memory because "it not only retains instructions, numbers, and positions in the memory but also seems to play a critical part in our ability to solve problems [once we] remember what it is we are to concentrate on.
There are several reasons why others think so highly of this book. Here are two of mine. First, Klingberg brilliantly and (yes) patiently explains for non-scholars such as I (a) how and why our brains overflow with an increasingly greater number of "messages" from an increasingly greater number of information sources (e.g. other persons, electronic and print media, The Web, telephones, billboard), (b) how and why at least some of it is retained by working and long-term memory capabilities, and (c) what we must do to achieve and then maintain a balance of working load with working memory capacity, if not the "perfect equilibrium" to which Lehrer refers. "If we analyze the situation through the lens of the concept of working memory, we find that your feelings are matched by something quantifiable: the simultaneous inflow of two streams of information is extremely demanding on working memory." Moreoever, the complexities and consequent difficulties of this inundation are exacerbated by the fact there is a constant updating, revision, and even replacement of the information we have retained. That is why Klingberg suggests, "we must always be aware of the limited scope we have for receiving information." Choices, sometimes very difficult choices must be made...frequently when there is a crisis. The safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15th offers an excellent case in point. Captain Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger working memory of procedures enabled him to process and then respond to the information provided by the computers aboard the Airbus A320.
In his review for the Wall Street Journal (Monday, December 15, 2008), Christopher Chambris suggests another reason why I think so highly of this book. "For Mr. Klingberg, the mismatch between our modern lives and ancient brains is most evident in the problems of working memory and attention, but another culprit may be at work. We are easily distracted also because we vastly overvalue what happens to us [begin italics] right now [end italics] compared with what comes in the future and because novelty is intrinsically rewarding. So whatever we are supposed to be focusing on has to compete with every new email, new task, new blog post and new conversation that wanders into our information sphere." Chamblis' purpose is not to suggest how to cope with various workplace "culprits." It remains to be determined by additional research in a new field of neuroscience whether or not the capacities of the "ancient brain" can be increased to accommodate the "flow" of information in the 21st century. However, in my opinion, Torkel Klingberg has made a substantial and significant contribution to our understanding of what workplace supervisors can and should do to balance their working load with working memory capacity within their own "information sphere" and also help others for whom they are responsible to do so within theirs'. The extent to which workplace distractions are reduced will almost certainly determine the extent to workplace productivity will increase. Moreover, there will be another benefit of incalculable value: improved worker morale.