Can you stop your brain’s cognitive load from lowering your IQ?

Yes, you can. And I will show you how. But first, what is cognitive load?

Cognitive load

Cognitive load is the amount of stuff we’re “juggling” mentally at any given time. We cycle thoughts and feelings through our heads all day long. The concept of cognitive load was first proposed by John Sweller in 1988. He says that the amount of information, the complexity, and the interactions that we must be processed simultaneously is our cognitive load.

In this post, I’ll introduce an important concept that will have a dramatic impact on your life. This concept can make you smarter (or dumber) and may even dictate whether you are successful at work.

You’ll learn why this occurs, and what you can do to reduce the problem. The concept is grounded scientifically and I’ll show you the evidence. People joke about this concept all the time. They just don’t know that it’s actually REAL. The mind-blowing concept that can change your life and your work performance is “cognitive load.”

When you are learning something new, this new learning can be processed in real-time or it can overwhelm the brain based on:

  • your knowledge of related background information in your long-term memory,
  • the emotional context and relevance,
  • the strength of your working memory.

So, how can this concept make you feel stupid, or pretty smart? You guessed it. Unless you are prepped with strategies (including long-term and short-term memory skills), you will go into cognitive overload and freeze up. This is not good.

Examples of cognitive load

Below are some common examples of cognitive load that some of us have.

Money issues

If you are worried about paying your rent or your mortgage payment, it will constantly use up part of your brain’s functioning power. “Your cognitive capacity can be stretched thin because of excessive cognitive load issues,” said Harvard economist Dr. Mullainathan. This non-stop worry that comes with being poor or not having sufficient income demands constant cognitive juggling and mental energy. As a result, the poor usually have less brainpower to devote to work or study.

In two countries (U.S. and India), with very different types of poverty, the researchers looked into the daily cognitive load. The results were the same in both countries. The poor are more likely to make mistakes and make poor decisions that amplify and perpetuate their problems. This mental strain typically costs poor people as much as 13 IQ points (Shah et al.).

In short, having too much on your mind hurts your thinking skills and intelligence.

Relationship issues

If you feel very guilty about something you have done and you keep mulling over it, you can subtract 15% of your brainpower.

If you’re going to a holiday function and you’re worried about what others will think of you (instead of you thinking about how you can be interested in others), you can subtract 20%.

If you’re trying to prepare a holiday dinner and at the same time, you’re worried about being caught because you’re having an extramarital affair, you can subtract 50% of your brainpower.

If you’re in an abusive relationship at home or being beaten every day, you can subtract 40% of your brainpower.

The more things “weigh” on your mind, the less capacity you have for vitality, health, and joy.

Lifestyle issues

If you’re thinking of what else you could be doing right now (besides reading this blog), you just lost another 10% of brainpower.

If you fail to get a full night’s sleep, you can temporarily lose the amount of brainpower equal to 10 points of IQ (Wolfson and Carskadon; Killgore, et al.).

In short, the more you have on your “mental plate”, or the more “plates you’re juggling in the air”, the worse your cognitive skills will be. Worry too much when you are at work or when you are on holiday, and you’ll lose brainpower.

Research suggests that situational stress like the social anxiety you get when you meet strangers at social events, during holidays, and even at work, impairs your attentional and cognitive powers.

Worry too much about what others think and you get dumber (Moriya & Sugiura).

One professor of medicine, psychiatry, and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA studies the biological pathways by which social environments influence gene expression. He says, “I know what misery looks like on a genetic level, and it’s not good.”

But is this all bad news?

Actually, it’s not. Now, let’s go to the “What to do about it” section.

What you can do about it

Let’s “flesh out” each of the studies listed above. This is fairly easy to do. What you are seeing is two separate problems. While they are related, they require different solutions.

Reduce their cognitive load

To help your colleagues succeed at work, you can reduce their cognitive load by:

  • Making the office a safe place, where office staff will NOT be threatened, bullied, or made fun of by anyone. Give everyone a vehicle for expression to talk about what’s important, whether it’s a small team, a partner, or a journal or board for their private writing.
  • Giving them tools that they can use in their work. Get them to attend training classes where necessary. This will free up their working memory to “juggle” new learning.
  • Put up key ideas, instructions, and training posters around the workplace, so they can refer to concepts, instruction sets, and where to get help. This will free them from having to do the “load-inducing” work of remembering every instruction, who to contact, and what to look for.

Lower their stress

To reduce stress and help your colleagues get their life back, remember that your brain has “filters” that help it decide whether something is stressful or not. The first filter is whether the situation or person is relevant to your goals in life. If your brain says, “Yes, this is very relevant to me,” then the next filter kicks in. That second filter is the “sense of control.” If something is relevant and you feel in control, the stress is low. If it is relevant and you feel out of control, the stress is high.

You can lower your colleagues’ stress levels by:

  • Giving them more perceived control over their work. Offer responsibilities and leadership, and invite their suggestions to raise their sense of control.
  • Providing coping tools for them to help themselves better manage their stress.
  • Keep them engaged at work that provides a sense of purpose and connectedness.


Cognitive load is the amount of stuff we’re juggling at any given time. Too much cognitive load and we feel “stupid”… and IQ can drop. Too many worries (real or imagined) can overload the cognitive capacity and make us feel “dumb.”

The solutions are: (1) teach better cognitive skills, (2) give them tools and training to help them do their work, (3) teach better self-management, and (4) make the workplace safe, with opportunities for expression.

Learn to free up your mind to live free and healthy. This is one of many reasons to teach yourself how to run your brain and a good reason to meditate.

So, stay in the moment. Let go of that which you cannot control. Be honest with others and yourself. Think affirming thoughts. Take a deep breath. Relax. Picture your goal and a clear pathway to reaching that goal. You can do this!


  • Jensen E. “Can Holidays Lower Your IQ?” Adapted with permission.
  • Killgore W., Kahn-Greene E., Lipizzi L., Newman R., Kaminori G., Balkin T. “Sleep Deprivation Reduces Perceived Emotional Intelligence and Constructive Thinking Skills.” Elsevier Sleep Medicine, 2008.
  • Moriya J., Sugiura Y. “High Visual Working Memory Capacity in Trait Social Anxiety.” PLoS One, 2012.
  • Shah A. K., Mullainathan S., Shafir E. “Some Consequences of Having Too Little.” Science, 2012.
  • Sweller J. “Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning.” Cognitive Science, 1988.
  • Wolfson A. R., Carskadon M. “A Survey of Factors Influencing High School Start-Times.” NASSP Bulletin, 2005. 
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