Cognitive Overload

Dec 08, 2022

The Driving Series - Part 2


How much is too much? When does busy turn into overwhelmed? ICS teaches us that the span of control should be no more than 5-7 people, so which is it? 5 or 7? Or are there times when it should be 3?


If you're looking for a simple answer, then my answer is yes. Or, if you prefer, no. Sorry, not sorry.


So back to my days teaching first responders how to drive with lights and sirens. One of the ways that we talked about recognizing (and avoiding) hazards was by asking the driver to talk about the hazards they were seeing as they drove with lights and sirens on. This sounded very different depending on where we were driving. On an open country road, it was relaxed, sometimes with pauses as no obvious hazards were seen ("I see a cow behind a fence…"). In the city, with multiple lanes of traffic, on street parking, pedestrians, complicated intersections, the flow of words was fast, sometimes without enough time to list all the hazards.


One of the things that we looked for as an instructor was a driver who was becoming overwhelmed, unable to mentally process all the hazards and causing the instructor to perspire (but never sweat). It wasn't subtle either. The driver would begin by talking about hazards 360 degrees around the vehicle. As the amount of information increased, they'd start to focus on the 180 degrees in front of the vehicle then narrowing even further. One driver even focused down so much, they were only seeing hazards directly in front of them, like they were looking through a tube. Usually, the simple remedy for this overload was to gently remind the driver to take their foot off the gas. As the vehicle slowed, their vision widened out as their brains were able to catch up to the information flow.


We’re talking about cognitive load. What is being asked of your brain and the ability of your brain to keep up. We all have a brain budget. When we spend more than is in the account or we spend faster than cheques clear, our mental credit card gets denied. In an ideal world, we might have a spending account of $1000 brain bucks. You’re planning on doing a little retail therapy at the Incident Management mall. As you’re spending away on things that you know will make your life better, you didn’t account for the car payment that is auto-processed today, the gas you bought on the way to the mall, lunch and coffee (why not get a fancy one?). Several major purchases in, you casually tap your card, already thinking about which store to go to next when – card declined. Rapid check on your banking app and, face palm moment, you’re out of money and pay day isn’t until tomorrow.


As I talked about in the previous post, we bring a lot with us when an incident starts. When we’re talking about cognition, this is harder to quantify. Starbucks didn’t have your favorite flavour syrup this morning? Subtract $5 brain bucks. The kids thought it’d be fun to wake you an hour earlier than usual? Subtract $50 brain bucks. Accidentally scrape the boss’s car in the parking lot? Subtract $500 brain bucks. Every day, every incident will be different because you will be spending your cognition on different things. 


In our training exercise in which the driver talks through the hazards, the more that is going on (demanding their cognitive powers), the quicker the driver would narrow their focus. If it was toward the end of the day, poor weather, first time driving with lights & sirens, even driving on the country roads could be overwhelming (it's amazing how intimidating a cow behind a fence can actually be). Same remedy though. Take the foot off the gas and eventually the field of vision widens back out.


So how do you take your foot of the gas in the middle of an incident?


1.    We need to be self-aware. Recognize the times that we’re carrying a greater cognitive load and when we’re reaching capacity.

2.    Empathy. Recognize when others are carrying a greater load and step in to help redistribute it

3.    The days of ‘tireless heroes’ are gone. Make sure you and your team are getting adequate rest.

4.    Expand your ICS team and/or reduce span of control. One person may have greater capacity than another. Refer to points 1 and 2.

5.    Channel information into different points of your ICS org to be processed and then summarized during SITREPs.

6.    Use simple language, minimize abbreviations and slang.

7.    Use procedures and checklists to minimize additional cognitive load.


This is the Driver’s Ed moment. Don’t drive too fast for the conditions. Know your limits.


And happy driving!

Part of a Series: The Driving Series: Part 1