Cognitive Load

Your brain struggles to learn when it runs out of working memory.

Cognitive load refers to working memory you use to learn new material. Reducing cognitive load makes it easier to learn. Low quality instruction and distractions increase your cognitive load. The need for an excessive amount of mental effort is known as cognitive overload.


Types of cognitive load:

There are three types of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load: The inherent level of difficulty. Some activities are simply harder than others.
  • Extraneous cognitive load: How the instructor teaches the information. Are they making it harder than it needs to be?
  • Germane cognitive load: Using a "mental schema" to understand the material at a conceptual level. Basically, we're talking about mental models.

Intrinsic cognitive load is generally considered something you can't change. After all, an activity is either easy or it's not. But the other two types of cognitive load - extraneous and germane - can be controlled to make learning easier.



Chunking is a great technique for reducing cognitive load. It's done by organizing smaller pieces of information into groups. It's the reason why phone numbers and credit cards are usually broken into groups of numbers no greater than four.

Learning any complex task often involves identifying the individual steps and "chunking" them into a single step in your mind.

In the martial arts, chunking is essential to learning new techniques. If you had to stop and think about every single step in a technique, you'd never get anything done. After you've familiarized yourself with each step and sufficiently practiced it, your mind can "merge" them all into a single "technique." Josh Waitzkin describes this process as "form to leave form."

Here's an example. A beginner might see these steps:

  1. grip opponent with cross-collar grip
  2. pull guard with outside leg hook and ankle grip
  3. off-balance immediately, forcing opponent to post hands on the floor
  4. switch hips and begin sweep
  5. come up on single leg and execute sweep
  6. establish top position for 3 seconds.

An expert may "chunk" these steps into a single technique:

  1. pull de la Riva guard and sweep.

Chunking is also a great way to categorize techniques into systems. Using the Kimura as an example: instead of worrying about remembering every Kimura submission variation, focus on learning the Kimura as a system of control, and focus on the critical control points that make the Kimura effective.


Keep it simple

When learning or performing complex tasks, it's important to limit the amount of unnecessary information. This “trimming of the fat” involves identifying the most critical details pertaining to a subject or task, and to some degree, disregarding what is not important. When your brain becomes over-cluttered with details and excessive information during learning and performing tasks, it becomes difficult to:

  • keep objectives clear and concise
  • remember the most important details and ideas related to the objective
  • adapt on the fly when problems occur
  • take in new information
  • stay focused and reduce stress.

The alignment theory is a great way to keep BJJ simple: instead of building your game by memorizing hundreds of individual techniques, focus on maintaining your body’s alignment, and compromising your opponent’s alignment. With this approach, goals become much simpler, and techniques will more or less “fill in the blanks,” because you already have a systemic framework for correct body positioning.


Further study:

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